Walla Walla School Board holds off on bond fund decision

Some money left over from the Edison Elementary project will be used for radon mitigation at Blue Ridge, but the remainder has not been committed.

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WALLA WALLA -- The Walla Walla School Board has agreed to delay a decision on how to use excess bond money, but did commit about $500,000 of it to mitigate radon from Blue Ridge Elementary.

The board was faced with whether to allow the use of $1.6 million left over from the reconstruction of Edison Elementary to spend on other projects within the district. Notably, Superintendent Rich Carter had recommended the board use the money to install a radon mitigation system at Blue Ridge, seek a new boiler for Pioneer Middle School, and address other safety and energy-saving needs within the district.

When the time for the vote came during Tuesday night's regular meeting, most of the five board members were torn about whether to take immediate action or delay the decision to allow more public comment.

In 2007, area residents approved a $19.5 million bond, to be paid over 20 years, to rebuild Edison Elementary. The school was completed in 2009 and opened for the current school year. Last week the district announced that the project came in $1.6 million under budget, and the district asked the board to use the money for other needs.

This year the district also learned high levels of radon gas were occurring in Blue Ridge Elementary. The district has since committed to installing a new system at the elementary school to fully address gas concentrations. The estimated cost of that project is $450,000.

During the meeting, a few Edison parents spoke about concerns regarding the excess money, and questioned at what cost to the original vision of the school the $1.6 million was saved. Two parents voiced disappointment that a stage included in the original blue prints of the school was left out of the final design. This caused problems and extra work for parent volunteers when Edison students put on their annual talent show last week, the board learned.

One parent, Kathryn Southwick-Hess, explained how the school had to borrow a portable stage, lights and sound system from Garrison Middle School. David Mumm, who echoed what Southwick-Hess said, suggested some of the excess money could be used to at least buy Edison its own portable stage.

Parent Kathy Farrell-Guizar spoke about the disorder caused by the student pick-up and drop-off areas, which was switched with bus drop-off from the front of the school to the back during the school year. Despite the switch, traffic congestion continues to be a problem at the new school.

Board member Jim Lehmann requested more time to learn exactly what was still needed at Edison, and whether the traffic problem was something the district or city should address.

Board member Anne Golden said she wanted to give the public more opportunity to discuss the excess funds and use any input to gauge the direction the board should take. And board member Dan Hess felt a vote on the entire $1.6 million could be delayed, and money from the district's general fund reserves could be used to cover the cost of the Blue Ridge project. Board member Max Carrera and board President Cindy Meyer were equally passionate about the decision, but expressed more willingness to commit the money to the originally suggested projects.

Following some more discussion, district attorney Roy Koegen, who was at the meeting to answer questions and explain the legality of the resolution, suggested the board set aside up to $500,000 for the Blue Ridge project. The remaining $1.1 million was put on hold to give the board time to set up public meetings. Golden moved the board adopt the resolution shortly before 10 p.m., and it passed unanimously.

Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at mariagonzalez@wwub.com or 526-8317. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/schoolhousemissives.

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