The Walla Walla School District has too many classrooms and not enough students, according to state and local data. To make better sense of facility use and budgets, Superintendent Wade Smith has proposed regrouping children and redrawing school boundaries.

Consolidating the district’s elementary schools from six to five better fits when it comes to balancing budgets, Smith has said.

If approved, the change would start in the 2020-2021 school year.

So far the general public doesn’t seem fazed by the idea, Smith and School Board members agreed this week.

The “best assumption” is that making six schools into five would save about $1.39 million, Smith said today.

Not in teacher reductions, as class sizes would stay the same, but in one less principal, one less building to heat and cool and fewer building support staff.

Doing so would also free up a school for a proposed early learning center, and grant dollars could pay for the costs associated with staffing and running that building, Smith said.

Earlier this year, school officials announced the district has been awarded a state grant and a new partnership with Educational Service District 123 to offer more preschool slots and more preschool hours for eligible families.

The expanded preschool numbers are going to stretch the physical limits of the current seven classrooms at Blue Ridge Elementary School, Smith said in February.

The Walla Walla School Board is in the process of studying what community input it’s received so far, including whether to put all preschool classes in one building or distribute those throughout the elementary schools.

The next step is pinpointing where all preschool and elementary students live within the district, Smith said this week.

“I think it will be eye opening,” he said. “Once we know where they live, we can look at demographics and how does that influence boundary adjustments.”

Board members said they had not received much feedback from the “Elementary Consolidation Review and Early Learning Expansion” survey that was open through May 1, nor heard a lot from constituents.

“It doesn’t seem to me we have unearthed information to change our original theories and thoughts from providing all day preschool and more services in one building,” board member Sam Wells said.

Derek Sarley agreed there has not been a backlash against the proposals, but reminded his fellow board members that whatever happens with school consolidation, “our community is going to change.”

Survey results did show families want small class sizes, equity among schools and a freedom to choose their child’s school for certain reasons, such as dual language programs, board member David Hampson said.

In Tuesday’s meeting, Smith and the board decided to do more outreach to Latino families, plus offer the opportunity for public comment regarding consolidation and early learning proposals in board meetings throughout the process.

Board chairwoman Ruth Ladderud said she was pleased at the thoughtful pace of the board’s decision-making process.

“If you move too fast, you break things,” she said, quoting Blue Ridge Principal Kim Doepker. “And we are giving this time … we are going at a speed that allows input to direct us. Give us a reason to veer.”

According to the project’s time line, work on redrawing school boundaries will begin Oct. 1, and a final decision about elementary school buildings will be made Nov. 5.

Over nine years, the district has seen a reduction of about 250 elementary students and is anticipating 25 empty classrooms in six elementary schools in the next few years, Smith has said.

This school year is following course, he said at Tuesday’s board meeting.

Other than a slight upward blip in February, populations at public elementary schools in town have continued to take a slow, downward trajectory that Smith called “consistent and predictable.”

Fewer students means less state funding — the Walla Walla School District will receive about $11,000 per student in the 2019-2020 school year. With recently enacted lower funding caps for voter-approved levies, that means less money for everything.

For more information on the Elementary Consolidation Review and Early Learning Expansion study, go to wwps.org and click on the yellow banner at the top of the site. The next board meeting will be 5:30 p.m., June 4, at the district office, 364 S. Park St.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers education in the Walla Walla Valley. She also writes a column, Home Place, usually highlighting family life and slices of local life.

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