The Kennewick School District is poised to receive a $51 million state grant – about the cost of two new elementary schools – to lower class sizes for students in kindergarten through third-grade.
That could pay for as many as 12 classrooms at each of some central and east Kennewick schools, new elementary schools or even stand-alone magnet programs dedicated to dual language classes or science and technology.
District administrators have outlined a gamut of options for the school board to consider in the coming weeks. In the meantime, the board must vote to accept the grant at its May 25 meeting.
The challenge will be how to spend the money. The grant comes with specific rules. It can’t simply be used to build new schools.
The district, which has 17,000 students, will have to show the state that the money was used to increase space only for grades K-3.
While Kennewick was listed as having the fifth-highest priority of the 20 districts to receive preliminary approval for funding, it received the largest grant of the $234 million awarded. Yakima, Wapato, Toppenish and Othello also received grants.
Pasco was just a few points outside of receiving money. The Sunnyside and Kiona-Benton City districts also were among 90 statewide applicants.
Reducing class sizes, particularly for kindergarten through third-grade classrooms, has taken on greater importance since voters passed a state initiative in 2014.
It’s also tied into the state Supreme Court’s order in the McCleary decision for the Legislature to fully fund K-12 education, saying the state has fallen short of that duty.
Along with needing teachers to staff more classrooms, many districts have said they need more space for those teachers and students. Many, especially those in the Tri-Cities, have resorted to using dozens of portable buildings to ease classroom overcrowding. But some districts have run out of room to place portables and others have had trouble finding portable classrooms to buy.
State lawmakers established the K-3 Class Size Reduction grant program in 2015 to help districts with the greatest need build classrooms to get class sizes down to as few as 17 students to a teacher in the earliest grades.
Doug Carl, Kennewick’s capital projects director, said the district expected to receive some money but was shocked at the size of the state grant, which is calculated to build 89 classrooms in the district.
Superintendent Dave Bond said elementary school enrollments have been growing by 250 students a year in recent years.
The district already planned to build three new elementary schools in the next couple years with part of a $89.5 million bond approved by voters about a year ago.
The board will likely revisit the size and design of those schools, as well as issues such as school boundaries and busing.
District officials said its crucial the grant be used to best serve current students and beyond.
“We have to be smart enough about what we do so we don’t hurt ourselves in the future,” said Bond.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.