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School options: repair, rebuild or redesign

District looks to public to decide the future of its K-8 buildings
by: JIM CLARK, An online poll indicates parents at Hollyrood-Fernwood School would prefer a new school be built. Currently, the Hollyrood campus is for K-2 students and Fernwood (shown) is for grades 3-8.

There’s still no telling how much Portland Public Schools will ask for in a construction bond to fix and build new schools — or if the district even will place a bond on the ballot in November. Before those issues are decided, district leaders say, they must ask the public: What do you want to see happen to your school? In a series of neighborhood meetings beginning next week, a consultant to the district will lay out options for each school building, based on an analysis conducted last summer. Buildings could be repaired, rebuilt or completely redesigned as “21st century” schools, with sustainability, technology and flexible use with the neighborhood in mind. Yet this round of discussions will focus only on the district’s elementary and middle schools. Discussions on the high schools will be postponed until later this spring. There are too many unresolved issues with many of the high schools, project manager Doug Capps said, with much to be sorted out before the public can engage in long-term planning for their buildings. So how much will it cost to tackle all of the upgrades and sleek new buildings the public might envision? At a minimum, the Texas-based Magellan Group said, it will cost $900 million to $1.4 billion to bring all of the district’s schools up to standards, or make them — in industry terms —“safe, warm and dry” with renovations, disabled accessibility and seismic upgrades kept to a minimum. That’s a low-end estimate, if none of the schools were rebuilt or redesigned, as district leaders hope will happen. The district began talking about “reshaping” its schools last year, appointing a 16-person committee to guide the process and contracting Magellan to analyze the conditions of the schools inside and out. The district also hired Ohio-based DeJong Inc. to lead the public process. In all, both contracts came to about $800,000. District staff and committee members say that’s money well spent, since it will help produce a credible, transparent, data-driven process that will be shaped by the community. Unlike 2006’s controversial school reconfiguration process, “the district isn’t presenting a set of recommendations,” Capps said. “They’re saying, here are a couple of options for the future of this school. It’s a bottom-up, data-driven process.” The upcoming meetings, however, are sure to ignite a lot of resentment that’s been brewing in some parts of the community. For one, some residents don’t see how the district allowed its buildings to deteriorate as they have over the years, to the point where many are nearly unsafe for students to occupy. Closed schools a sore spot Others question why the district is trying to build new schools after closing several beloved neighborhood schools over the past five years. “Some of the closed schools, to my knowledge, do have a lot of remaining years of life on them and have been significantly upgraded, so I would question why those schools are sitting there empty,” said Nancy Smith, a vocal Neighborhood Schools Alliance activist and the new Parent-Teacher-Student Association president of Jefferson High School. “It wouldn’t make any sense to me to build more schools when you’ve got schools like that.” Capps said the district’s shuttered schools will be part of the data assessment, but the “goal is not to look at the option of reopening that school,” he said. “They’re only being assessed as part of our capital program.” Capps said he’s heard district residents bemoan the loss of their neighborhood schools but points out that they were closed for various reasons, not just their physical condition. Edwards Elementary in Southeast, for example, was closed because it held fewer than 200 students and was merged with Abernethy, less than two miles away. Of the closed schools, only Smith Elementary (which closed last school year), Kellogg Middle School and Rose City Park Elementary (which closed this school year) remain empty. The others have been leased or are being used by the district for other purposes. As for the deferred maintenance, Capps said, cuts since 1990’s Measure 5 have forced the district to put its resources into the classroom, not the buildings. “The maintenance budget just declined dramatically over the years,” he said. “We’ve been in almost an emergency fix-up mode.” Capps said the school board in May will decide the question of a bond after hearing public input over the next several months. After this month’s meetings, Magellan will come up with a set of recommendations and present them to the public for another round of feedback in April. The high school discussions will occur on another track, also shaped by public input. The school board is scheduled to finalize a plan in May, which will guide any future construction bond measure. In 1995, voters approved a 10-year, $195 million bond to do seismic upgrades and other fixes to school buildings. High schools gather data It’s ironic that this first round of discussions will happen at four different high schools but will not include options for the high schools themselves. In the case of many high schools, Capps said, “there are a number of significantly good options that could be laid out to the public, but need to jell more.” For instance, it’s still possible that the district could tinker with Jefferson’s four small academies, since parents have complained about a lack of offerings and resources. Other high schools, such as Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt, still are evaluating how well their small-school models are working, and Lincoln High School is working on its own redevelopment option in the Pearl District. As long as those issues are unresolved, Capps said, it doesn’t make sense to come up with a long-term building plan. Besides, he said, it’s a good time for all of the high school communities to think creatively about what they want to offer students and how they best can do so. “We’re back to the old form follows function,” he said. “We’ve yet to get the function conceptualized yet.” In Northeast Portland, Hollyrood-Fernwood School parent Craig Williams is anxious to see what Magellan’s data will show. His school community already has conducted an online poll, which revealed that overwhelmingly it would like to see a new school built in its place. In place of the aging, dysfunctional facility, school supporters would like to see a sustainable school that would be a neighborhood hub. “If that’s what the audit says, we’re ready to move forward,” he said. It’s a dream shared by many other school communities as well. Some, like Lincoln, have begun lining up private support to ease the public financing. Some parents, including Smith, the Jefferson parent, are wary of being shut out of any talks about their school’s future. She was disturbed to hear about a Washington, D.C., conference last fall at which the Jefferson principal and district facilities staff gathered to talk about the future of the Jefferson campus. Capps pointed out that the American Architectural Foundation had invited the district, along with a handful of others, to participate in the exercise. “They said, ‘Bring us an interesting problem that we might be able to help solve,’ ” he said. “We searched around our own situation … and thought we’ve been having these conversations with Portland Community College, related to Jefferson. (The conference) may be an opportunity to spring some new options out of a process like that, where they bring in national design expertise.” What emerged, he said, was “just an idea about something that might be done on that campus should the school district and PCC and the school constituency be interested in doing that. It’s one concept out of multiple concepts that might emerge.” The upcoming meetings are set for Jan. 15 at Jefferson High School, Jan. 16 at Wilson High School, Jan. 22 at Madison High School and Jan. 23 at Franklin High School. All are set for 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Citizens interested in attending are asked to e-mail the district at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..