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Task force says time to rebuild Sunset Primary School

A citizen task force has concluded that one of the West Linn-Wilsonville School District's oldest schools is better rebuilt than repaired.

Sunset Primary School is being described as functionally obsolete after more than two dozen citizens, with the help of an engineering firm, studied the options.

The task force's number-one recommendation to the school board was to rebuild Sunset on the 10 acres known as Oppenlander Fields, just off Rosemont Road. Its No. 2 idea was to buy Sunset Park from the city of West Linn, vacate the right-of-way between the park and the old school and build a new school on the expanded site. Building a new school on the small existing site got very few votes, and remodeling the existing building did not receive any votes.

'There are so many deficiencies in the current facility and so many unknowns when you start a remodeling project that the task force felt that was a non-starter,' said Sunset Task Force Chair David Lake of Wilsonville.

'In terms of moving to another location, it was more a question of having the right amount of land available that is required for a primary school.'

The price tags are nearly the same - $22 million for a new school at Oppenlander and almost $18 million to remodel, plus $4 million for a parking structure and an undetermined price for Sunset Park. But a bond proposal, in the works for November, would include other district projects.

'The information in this report will help us move in the direction of sizing the bond and determining the needs for the bond,' said School Board Chair Dale Hoogestraat.

But the price of remodeling Sunset is uncertain and could easily increase, according to Director of Operations Tim Woodley.

'Cosmetically, you can fix a building,' he said, 'but there are underlying deficiencies. And you never know what you're going to find until you tear into an old building.'

Those 'surprises' can raise the remodeling price tag significantly.

School Superintendent Roger Woehl recalled the extra cost after 'surprises' were found while remodeling West Linn High School.

'When we got into the gym wall at West Linn High School,' he said, 'we found it had no support, and it was nearly a million dollars to fix that wall and keep the gym from coming down.

'So the task force's idea was that after we got through remodeling Sunset, we might end up with an old remodeled building that has cost as much as a new building.'

Sunset among state's worst

Not only did Woodley call Sunset the worst school in the district, in terms of functional obsolescence, but also the state has Sunset listed among the state's worst in the event of an earthquake.

'Sunset doesn't have seismic integrity,' Woodley said. 'That's one of those things that they didn't think of in the '30s and '40s, when they built this school. (At that time) they didn't have engineering methods to understand seismic forces and how to restrain and restrict those.'

Even though a retrofit to make the building strong against earthquakes would be very expensive, Woodley said the district is not trying to scare anyone, just evaluating the deficiencies of a school that is reaching the end of its useful life.

Hoogestraat agreed.

'We are rapidly approaching the day when the old Sunset school will have outlived its usefulness,' he said, 'and I think that's the recommendation from the task force and the architects.'

Sunset problems are many

That list of deficiencies is long, according to the report that Lake and the Sunset Task Force prepared.

Among the problem areas is a leaky foundation that seasonally allows water to infiltrate and flood the lower levels of the school.

'The foundation leaks and we cannot, to save our lives, find it,' Woodley said. 'There's a sunken, lower-level basement, and we've dug and fixed pipes (without success). I fear that the school was built on top of stormlines. You can't find them, and they plug up and then they saturate the floor in different places.'

Sunset also is the only school in the district without a sprinkler system for fire, which wasn't required when the school was built. And current fire codes won't allow the building to be rebuilt or remodeled without a sprinkler system and other amenities.

The school also has difficulty meeting requirements for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Because the school is built on different levels, certain building designs are required that would enable free access for disabled students or adults. In the early 20th century, builders didn't think about how wide doors should be or how much space was needed to turn a wheelchair around.

Today, if a disabled student or adult wants to go from one level to another at Sunset, that person must go outside and travel around the large building to be able to enter an outside door at the other level. And in the rain, that's problematic.

The school also doesn't follow current design patterns for primary schools. Sunset was built on a four-acre site, but nowadays 500-student schools are placed on 10 acres.

In addition, the old school doesn't allow its teachers to participate in the type of progressive educational methods that all the other teachers in the district are using. The school's design does not allow for team teaching and shared spaces.

Even though the playground space and parking is limited and there have been many bus loading problems in the small space available, the students and faculty have adjusted.

Sunset not district's top issue

But fixing Sunset is not a slam-dunk for this bond. The district has other pressing needs, and district administrators are now working on a bond proposal that the school board will consider in future months. That's when a more public conversation will begin.

Hoogestraat says the district has to use portable classrooms to house some primary students, which show increasing numbers each year. The district is now using portable classrooms at several schools and plans to add more next year.

Deferred maintenance also is on the list of needs as well as the possibility of artificial turf at Rosemont Ridge Middle School.

For that public conversation, Woehl is planning a summit (conversation) Feb. 9 that will bring together for a day 85-100 local citizens from many walks of life to explore the possibilities and voice their opinions. The board will use the summit's views as advisory when it decides on a bond proposal.

After the February summit, Woehl said, a community survey will give the board more public opinion, prior to its decision next May or June, when more public comments will be heard.

Also likely to be a part of that conversation is how the money to be received from the sale of two pieces of land could assist in filling the district's capital project needs.

Bond vote likely in November

The bond is likely to be on the November 2008 ballot, but the price tag is still undetermined.

Business manager Bill Knowles said district patrons are paying off several bonds at the present time, but two of the district's smaller bonds will be paid in full by the time the proposed bond would be sold - thus reducing tax burden.

'The school board has had a policy for a number of years of not going over $3 per $1,000 tax rate, even though it is legally allowed to,' Knowles said.

The district has sold 20-year bonds for its capital projects in 1988, 1989, 1992, 1997 and 2002.

Woodley agreed with Knowles, knowing of the board's commitment to avoid raising the tax rate for school facilities.

'So the (bond) message will be,' Woodley said, ' 'Here are all of the projects that need to be done in the district, and they have this value, and your tax rate won't change.' '

The board will meet Monday night at 7 p.m., and could begin discussing the bond process.

For more information about the deliberations of the Sunset Task Force, visit www.wlwv.k12.or.us, scroll down from District Depts. and click on Operations and then on Sunset Task Force.