By SVERRE BAKKE
Is it time for the White Salmon Valley School District and its communities to have a conversation about replacing the 57-year-old Hulan L. Whitson Elementary School building?
Local school officials are asking themselves that question after reviewing the district's latest student enrollment data.
The numbers, compiled during an October count, show a nearly across-the-board increase in the size of Whitson Elementary's five grades in relation to what the district budgeted for the 2008-09 school year.
District Superintendent Dale Palmer said every conceivable classroom and instructional space in the main building at 540 N. Main Ave. is in full use. Moreover, the school's entire fourth grade -- 94 students -- is housed in the four-classroom module that opened last fall.
With its 512 students in grades K-4 -- 29 more than the district budgeted -- Whitson is on a continuing upward trend in enrollment growth.
The 109-student kindergarten class is the largest of all grade levels in the district. (The school district provides all-day kindergarten, though the state only pays half the cost; the district makes up the difference with class-size reduction money that comes from the state.)
The district budgeted for 90 kindergarteners but got a big surprise when it took its latest count. All told, the district has almost 26 more full-time equivalent students -- 1,146.77 -- than it budgeted for.
"The biggest impact is at the elementary school where, if you take last year's 72 fourth-graders and move them to Henkle (Middle School) and bring in 109 kindergarteners, Whitson has 46 more students this year than last," Palmer told The Enterprise.
As a result of the enrollment increase, he said, the district recently hired a half-time teacher at Whitson to bring its certificated staffing in line with the state's funding formula. But, he added, that doesn't address the facilities issue.
"We did add the four-classroom portable last year with the bond, and it's a good thing we did, as that building now houses the entire fourth grade and the main building itself doesn't have an empty room," Palmer noted. "Whitson will remain packed if the student count remains with classes of 100-plus students."
Enrollment in the district's pre-school program suggests that may be the trend for at least the next couple of years.
Whitson Elementary School last underwent a major modernization in the late 1980s, following passage of a bond measure that also funded an overhaul of Wayne M. Henkle Middle School and Columbia High improvements. (The opening of Whitson Elementary in 1951 led to the eventual shuttering of the Bingen and Husum schools in the 1970s.)
The planning for those projects involved the formation of a district facilities committee. Palmer said a similar effort will be needed in the next year or two to analyze the district's facility needs.
"It may soon be time to convene a district facilities committee to discuss our increasing enrollment and look at our facilities," Palmer said.