The Walla Walla School Board has been asking for feedback on a proposal to consolidate its six elementary schools into five and to create a new early learning hub in the city.

A meeting at Blue Ridge Elementary School —  identified Monday as the clear choice to close as a grade school —  brought on community concerns.

In front of about 50 people seated in the school’s library, board Chairwoman Ruth Ladderud and Superintendent Wade Smith presented the whys and hows of the study that began in March to answer some of the district’s pressing issues. Those include the following:

Washington state’s latest school funding formula has reduced the money flow to Walla Walla and some other school districts. 

A reduction of about 250 elementary students over the past nine years across the district, resulting in 25 empty classrooms. Statistics show Walla Walla is a “graying” community, a trend unlikely to reverse in the foreseeable future.

State data showing only 25 percent of area kindergartners enter school with ready-to-learn skills.

An opportunity to tap into more state and federal funding for early learning.

Ladderud told the group that board members have taken care to move slowly and to study each elementary school deeply, including site visits, looking at enrollment numbers and demographics, seeing which schools have the most walkers and which have the most bused students. Details to consider encompassed the number of toilets at each school, the square footage of classrooms and playground space, and student capacity. For numerous reasons, putting preschool space into each elementary school had to be ruled out as impractical and cost prohibitive, Smith added.

“We did not automatically choose Blue Ridge,” even as the school on Chestnut Street is already housing preschool classes in roughly 50% of the building, he said.

At the end of the day, however, Blue Ridge is the “clear winner,” Ladderud said, noting the board won’t make a final decision until October.

Still, she added, to suggest there is any other elementary school that lends itself for repurposing into an early learning center is misleading.

“That’s a false choice,” Ladderud said.

“We’re looking at a unanimous consensus — this location makes the best sense.”

A woman in the audience said it didn’t makes sense to her — if she was being “brutally honest” — that parents voted for the 2018 school bond in part because it promised to fix Blue Ridge’s leaky roof over the heads of present students.

“Was this being talked about before we all voted on the bond, and what happens to the money for the Blue Ridge roof” she asked, adding the change “creates a lack of trust."

Seated in the audience, board member Derek Sarley told the woman the early learning center idea arose after the bond vote and that the district still needs its six elementary facilities, despite the economical crunch of state education funding. 

“This was definitely not something the board was hiding,” he said, noting he was initially opposed to changing the use of Blue Ridge.

Blue Ridge will remain a district building, the roof still needs replacing and the plan is for the facility to serve the community for a long time, Smith said.

Other concerns were raised about distributing Blue Ridge students into other buildings, thus losing important components like the community feel of the school now and the momentum of the commitment of Blue Ridge staff. One staff person asked Ladderud if she was aware staff members knock on doors to get kids to school, even driving some students when necessary.

“Will there be a plan in place to knock on doors across the district?” the woman asked.

A longtime Blue Ridge volunteer told officials that’s part of what makes this place feel special.

Ladderud and Smith addressed concerns, sometimes with concrete answers and sometimes with their hopes. For instance, the district is deploying standardization in curriculum across the district and staff is being uniformly trained in social and emotional learning. Blue Ridge siblings will not be split up, nor will they have to move once redistricting boundaries have been settled. 

This move is not about reducing teaching staff; instead the plan is to move whole classes and their teachers together. Busing will be added to ensure children can participate in after-school activities, no matter which school they end up in, they said.

“But I can’t make promises that each child will be in a perfect situation,” Ladderud acknowledged. 

“That’s how change is … I hope when your kids go to school they find a home in other schools.”

Smith and Ladderud said they have more to learn about what will be needed — such as transition support for Blue Ridge families — and will continue to seek wisdom from the community. Once a decision is voted on next month, the school board will begin creating a transition plan for implementation in the 2020-2021 school year, Ladderud said.

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.