WALLA WALLA -- The Walla Walla School Board has agreed to use $1.1 million left over from building Edison Elementary to cover other district needs -- including addressing traffic concerns at Edison.
The vote came two weeks after the idea was presented to the board. At its previous meeting, the board delayed a decision to weigh public sentiment, and to consider whether to instead use the money to pay down the district's bond debt.
The board had recently learned the $19.5 million project to rebuild Edison, approved by voters in 2007, came in $1.6 million under budget. Superintendent Richard Carter recommended the board use the money to meet other needs.
At its June 1 meeting, the board agreed to wait, but did put aside $500,000 of the money to address radon gas problems at Blue Ridge Elementary School. The board then held a public work session last week to continue discussing the excess funds.
On Tuesday, board members voted to use the remaining $1.1 million to fix any traffic problems at Edison; buy a new boiler for Pioneer; and upgrade the phone systems at Green Park and Berney elementary schools and Pioneer and Garrison middle schools.
Cindy Meyer, Jim Lehmann, Max Carrera and Dan Hess voted to approve the resolution; Anne Golden voted against it. Golden declined to comment after the vote.
A few members of the public spoke during the meeting against committing the money to other projects, and recommended the board either use the money to pay down the debt or delay the decision.
Shane Laib was among the people who suggested the board wait. A City Council member, Laib told the board the city waited a year before using excess money from a bond to build a new fire station to pay down that debt. The move may have served the city politically, as it was able to easily get a bond passed last year to build a new police station.
Laib later noted the police station measure specifies any leftover money will go to paying down the debt. But he did acknowledge the school system has building and maintenance needs.
"It was the right thing to do," he said about the board's decision. "I don't know if it was the smartest thing to do."
After the meeting, Hess said he also regarded the potential to pay down debt as mainly a political issue. Hess said he agreed with Carrera, who said before the vote the board should use the money for the recommended improvements, while recognizing that it might be a politically tricky move.
"There's more than one way to build goodwill with citizens," Carrera said.
"It may build great political goodwill," he said about paying down the debt, "but it's not necessarily the best thing to do."
Hess said he also supported the decision knowing that both Carter, who is leaving the district at the end of the month, and incoming Superintendent Mick Miller, supported using the money now.
"Both of them made strong recommendations to do this," he said.
Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8317. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/schoolhousemissives.