Kelso School District officials are urging the school board to approve plans for the largest elementary school Cowlitz County has ever seen — and they say education shouldn’t suffer in such a large learning space.

The three-story, 45-foot structure proposed to replace Beacon Hill and Catlin elementary schools would host 950 students. It would have “academic wings” to separate grade levels, two STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) labs, a separated gym and cafeteria and an outdoor play area “enclosed” on three sides by the school. These elements mean the the design for the school meets all of the district’s criteria, said Patrick Donnelly, an architect for Integrus, the district’s designing company.

Some staff and parents are wary of the proposal, though, as they question whether students can receive a proper education in such a large building, said Scott Westlund, district finance director. The school’s design was made with that concern in mind, he added.

“Even though it’s a larger school, we’ve added enough classrooms to ensure that we are within the current recommended K-3 class sizes,” Westlund said. “That was one of our priorities to ensure that we could still maintain smaller learning communities within a larger school.”

The district also sent a group of representatives to Lake Wilderness Elementary School in the Puget Sound area community of Maple Valley to tour a school as large as the one proposed for Lexington. Lake Wilderness school was built in 2017 and serves about 950 students, said Kelso board member Leah Moore.

“If you’re used to looking at Butler Acres or Wallace, it’s big,” Moore said. “But it wasn’t as chaotic inside as I expected.”

The school separates bus traffic and parent drop-off lanes, Moore said, easing morning and after-school traffic. About 12 classes attend recess at one time, cycling through to lunch in an orderly fashion, she said.

Lexington’s design incorporates improvements that Lake Wilderness administrators wished they had, Moore said.

“I left feeling a lot better about this plan,” Moore said of the Lexington design.

Building the 950-student school would require the district to forego its plans to construct three new elementary schools with its $98.6 million bond, but district officials say it’s the best option the district has to make up for almost $20 million of unexpected cost overruns.

A smaller, 650-student version of the school was part of the district’s original plan to construct new schools at Wallace, Beacon Hill and Lexington (The Lexington school would replace Catlin elementary). However, the district is revising its plans because rising construction costs and poor soil conditions boosted the estimated price tag for these projects.

This district has considered several options to keep the bond projects on budget, including asking voters to support additional bonds, cutting $20 million from other bond projects or building only two new schools but doing “minimal upgrade work” on the third, Westlund said.

But of all the possible pathways, only one has garnered the support of two groups that helped design and pass the first bond plan: Build a new school at Wallace Elementary School and replace Beacon Hill and Catlin elementaries with a 950-student school at Lexington.

“(This option) appears to be the only proposal that would possibly meet the goals of the bond,” said Dot Joslin, Citizens for Kelso Schools representative, in a prepared statement Monday. The group advocated for the bond in the months leading up to the February election.

“We even tried coming up with our own alternatives — like ‘waiting to build’ — but came up with nothing. Out of the four options being considered, we unanimously agree that … (to) build Wallace as planned, build Lexington as a 950-student school and preserve the rest of the bond district wide the the best choice.”

The district’s Facilities Improvement Team, which developed the original bond plan, also is endorsing the shift to a 950-student Lexington school with the original Wallace reconstruction included.

The new strategy will allow the district to complete its other bond projects and guarantee the district gets all $50 million of the state match dollars allocated for the original plan, said Phil Iverson, regional project manager for Construction Services Group.

State match is determined through an eligibility process, which considers the age, condition and available space for new construction. Funds are distributed on a project-by-project basis, and state match money for one project cannot be used in another.

“Once you start having to take from these other school (projects), you start to take from your state match,” Iverson said. That means less funding for projects overall, he said.

“We have needs in all of our buildings, so that’s largely one of the reasons why we are recommending this larger school in Lexington,” said Westlund, who sits on the Facilities Improvement Team. “We don’t want to cut from other projects in the school district that have much greater need that even what will be done. ... We don’t have extra capital improvement money to make those major fixes until we are able to pass another bond down the road. That’s why we are trying to make sure we spread out these dollars and the state match.”

The board is expected to decide whether it will follow through with the 950-student school at its Jan. 28 meeting.

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