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Empty schools could swing into action

TribTown • District says four closed buildings may come in handy someday
by: JIM CLARK, The district pays to heat and maintain the vacant Kellogg Middle School (above), Clarendon Elementary and Smith Elementary, in part in case students need to be shuffled around during construction projects.

Mindy Roddy has loved living across from Southeast Portland's Kellogg Middle School for the past five years. The sounds of school bells and children were a delight, she said, until this fall, when the building closed during a districtwide reconfiguration. It now sits empty.

Lately, as is the fate of most shuttered buildings, the school has been a magnet for vagrants and vandalism, despite the fact that its windows are boarded up and the district keeps it alarmed.

'I walk my dog over there, and there's glass on the playground area,' Roddy said. 'And the graffiti's increasing now. I'm mostly worried about what's going to happen to it. … It's a little worrisome to have it abandoned.'

But the historic 1917 building won't be occupied anytime soon.

According to Portland Public Schools officials, the district wants to keep it and three other vacant schools available to serve as potential 'swing schools' during any large school reconstruction projects. They would house students from other schools while they're being rebuilt or remodeled.

The other three vacant schools are Rose City Park in Northeast Portland, Clarendon Elementary in North Portland and Smith Elementary in Southwest. PPS facilities Director Bryan Winchester said the buildings would not be leased or sold because they also could be permanently reopened if future enrollment increases significantly.

While the term 'swing school' isn't a familiar one, the district has taken this approach before.

When Whitaker Middle School closed about five years ago, the district moved its students into the building that became known as Whitaker-Lakeside Middle School, which is now leased to another entity.

Even earlier, in 1981, there was a host of renovations of school buildings that took 18 months to two years. The old Washington-Monroe High School building, now demolished, was empty at the time and served as a swing school during the phased projects.

Nationally, the practice of reserving swing schools is common as well.

In Montgomery County, Md., for example, the school district recently underwent a robust period of rebuilding. The district designated one large high school as the swing school, with students moving in and out of the building every three years or so as new school building projects were phased in, according to Judy Marks, associate director of the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, a U.S. Department of Education-created group that provides information on planning, funding and designing schools.

'The availability of swing space became very important,' she said. 'They finished up that project, then went back to the swing school and renovated it (into a permanent school). It looks great. It may be disruptive to the kids that have to be bused from long distances, but it certainly is easier to take the kids out of the building than phase the construction around them.'

Winchester said if the district is able to secure bond money to upgrade and overhaul many of its old, outdated school buildings, they would be phased in, perhaps three per year.

In the meantime, the district is paying roughly 50 cents per square foot to keep low-level heating in each of its empty buildings, as well as security alarms and windows boarded up to prevent vandalism.

The annual maintenance costs come to roughly $45,000 for Kellogg, $19,000 for Smith (closed in spring 2005), $24,000 for Clarendon (closed last fall) and $36,000 for Rose City Park (closed last fall).

The schools also are losing revenue from potential leases. But Winchester said the district doesn't make a lot of cash on such leases because most of the programs or organizations that want to occupy school space are nonprofits and don't pay market rate.

Winchester said the district also will stay away from short-term leases at the swing schools because it's hard to ask a nonprofit group to leave if the building is suddenly needed. 'Once you make that lease, it's a tug of the heartstring,' he said. 'It's not strictly a business issue.'

The district is considering whether to submit a bond measure to repair and replace aging schools. A consultant has said that it would cost between $900 million and $1.4 billion to address all of the district's basic facility needs.

About 50 citizens attended last Tuesday's meeting at Jefferson High to weigh in on the issue, and about 150 showed up at Wilson High on Wednesday to give input. The only overwhelming refrain was that Southwest Portland's Rieke Elementary should be rebuilt since it's currently too small.

People may attend two more meetings this week, at Madison High tonight and Franklin High on Wednesday, and full results of the public input process will be made public in about a week.

Many community members wonder why some empty school buildings don't get renovated by the McMenamins, like the Kennedy School in Northeast Portland.

'We've approached them on several of our properties, jokingly,' Winchester said. 'And they say, 'Thank you, but we have enough.' '

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