A long-awaited replacement for the 82-year-old Harrah Elementary School building in Mt. Adams School District is close to becoming a reality, with funding nailed down and a land purchase in negotiation.
If all goes to plan, the new school will be built on 70 acres of farmland adjacent to the east town limits and will house students from kindergarten through eighth grade.
“They’ve been anticipating this for years, so it’s really exciting,” Superintendent Curt Guaglianone said of the community. “During our board meeting when we announced it — when the board says, ‘Yes, we’re purchasing this land. Yes, we’re going to build this school’ — we had three people in tears. ... Community members just didn’t think it would ever, ever, ever happen.”
Finding the funds
The community has tried for 30 to 40 years to raise the funds to build a new school, Guaglianone said, but has never been successful. While the roughly 900-student district is the second largest in the state geographically, it has a small tax base. Much of the land in the district is tax-exempt as part of the Yakama reservation.
“We have more miles and acreage than any other than one district in the state, but yet our tax base is the lowest,” he said. “The tax burden falls on a very small number of people and that’s because we’re on federally impacted land… (so) the federal government has taken land off of our tax rolls.”
Because of this, the district has struggled to raise the bond or levy money necessary to fund the construction of a new school. In the last year, the district ran two bond measures for the cause, for $4 million and $3 million respectively. But the district didn’t get the required 60 percent support from voters. The number of registered voters in the district was 1,894 in 2018.
Even if the bond measures had been approved, Guaglianone said, combined with $12 million in state funds from the School Construction Assistance Program, it only would have been enough to “build half a school.”
Two years ago, state Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, proposed a bill that would help school districts like Mt. Adams.
“I had a bill called Small Rural Schools aimed at assisting those schools (districts) of less than 1,000 (students) that don’t have the tax base” to raise construction funds through bonds and levies, he said. “I wanted a program that would not just be an automatic, ‘Hey, go out and beat the bond program and get some money.’ So we had some parameters.”
Mt. Adams was one of four school districts considered demonstration projects for the bill, he said. Under the proposal, Mount Adams would receive $14.27 million in state funding. The bill did not pass the House of Representatives, but Honeyford said he had enough language in the capital budget to allow the four districts’ projects to move forward.
A new version of the bill, SB 5572, is in Legislature now and is in its second reading. Honeyford said if the bill were to be approved, it would likely become part of the SCAP funding system and would have criteria for districts to qualify, including local matching requirements.
Between the grant from Honeyford’s program, SCAP funds and the district’s reserve funds, Guaglianone said officials have roughly $27 million — enough to move forward with the construction. In January, the school board made a formal offer to purchase 70 acres of land from Inaba Produce Farms. According to Harrah Town Council meeting minutes, part of the land is already within Harrah’s urban growth area, but the school district intends to request that the remainder be annexed to Harrah.
Neither Guaglianone nor Lon Inaba, owner of the farms, would disclose the price because the sale isn’t final. “It’s a fair price for everybody,” Inaba said.
He said the district has to wait 60 days to inspect the land before finalizing the sale.
Guaglianone hopes to break ground on the new building within a year.
Harrah Elementary doesn’t have enough room for its more than 550 students in kindergarten through sixth grade. Half of a bus barn was converted into sixth-grade classrooms, and when that wasn’t enough, the school added five portables for a total of 10 classrooms.
The school is in dire need of new infrastructure. Portables have no running water or restrooms, and the heating is unreliable.
Last school year, the campus heating went out five times, so students had to be bused to the high school gymnasium more than 10 miles away, Guaglianone said. It happened again in February.
Students are constantly shuffling from one building to the next, whether to attend elective courses, eat in one of the four cafeteria lunch rotations required to seat all of the students, or to use a toilet in one of the two main buildings, said Principal Rob McCracken.
“It’s just a constant stream of kids walking through and it’s hard to supervise. It makes me nervous,” McCracken said, adding that to get from one building to another, students have to walk through the parking lot or playground, often alone.
Sixth-grade teacher Latasha Larez said concerns over student safety detract from student learning. In a new building, she said, she hopes to see this change.
“I think if the teachers feel comfortable, more comfortable and safe, then we’ll be able to — I won’t feel so nervous. Not worrying when my kid leaves: ‘Where did he go? Is he going to make it?’” Larez said. “That way I can worry about just teaching. ... My mind (will be) right here with my kids.”
Guaglianone said the new building will have up-to-date security features and will be big enough to hold students in kindergarten through eighth grade, adding roughly 120 students from the middle school to the new campus. There will be wings that separate age groups, creating an environment suitable for kindergartners, middle schoolers, and those who fall in-between, according to the superintendent.
The new arrangement will eliminate the middle school transition, which staff said will be beneficial.
“Research shows that the fewer transitions that students have in their life, period, they do better in school,” he said. “Our students have lots of transitions in their lives — a lot of challenges. We have a very high number of homeless students in our district. We have a number of students who live with grandparents or aunties and uncles. A large number.
“If we can provide one opportunity where they have fewer transitions ... they’re going to be more successful and have a better chance of being successful when they get to high school.”
Plans for the new building will be on the district website in the coming weeks, Guaglianone said. While much of it has already been decided, he said there is a lot to finalize, and a schedule for the school’s completion is still unclear.
But staff members are getting excited about the changes.
School librarian Sonya Merz said she hopes to contribute to planning for the new school.
“I’ve just been running through my mind what I like about this setup, what I don’t, what I hope to change,” she said, standing in front of rows of bookshelves.
She wants smaller tables and chairs suitable for students. She is excited to fit the entire staff in the new library, expected to be nearly twice the size of the current space. And she wants bookshelves arranged so kids can’t hide out of sight.
“I’m totally excited about it. I’m just thrilled,” Merz said. Then she turned to Guaglianone. “I can’t believe you pulled it off — getting the school built,” she said.