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Rebuilding Marysville stuck in funding limbo

Parents, students wait as school district ponders more debt
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Marysville School sixth grader Kristin House, 11, makes do at the Rose City Park building -- the school's temporary location for the past 19 months, since a fire ravaged their school. But the Marysville community is longing to return home to Southeast Portland. District leaders included $21.5 million for the rebuild in the construction bond; now they must find the funds elsewhere.

Revamping, rebuilding, redesigning - that's what the Portland School Board promised to do a lot of this year.

The failed bid to fix and renovate aging school buildings dominated most of the agenda. That came after much talk about closing and reshaping high schools, in particular Jefferson.

District leaders vowed to revamp the long-struggling ESL program by hiring a new director and appointing a new parent advisory group.

When it comes to closing the achievement gap, a new racial equity policy and Superintendent Carole Smith's 'milestones' framework are looking for transformative results.

But one of the biggest and most heartfelt promises has revolved around rebuilding Marysville School, destroyed by a fire about 18 months ago.

The question now is: Will they be able to deliver?

Since the fire, the school has operated out of the formerly shuttered Rose City Park School building in Northeast Portland. Kids spend up to 45 minutes on the school bus twice a day, and families and staff feel a disconnect from their neighborhood.

District leaders sought to remedy that by budgeting $21 million for a new Marysville rebuild in the bond package, naming it priority No. 1.

To get a jump start, the school board in April approved the hiring of DLR Group, an architecture and engineering firm, to begin the design process. DLR was going to work with students, families, school staff and the Marysville community to explore design options, which were slated to be presented to the board in June, along with cost estimates and proposed schedules.

Since the bond failed, however, any talk of a rebuilt school has halted.

The board isn't scheduled to take up the issue at either of its last two meetings this month. Construction on the new school won't happen this fall.

When it comes to raising funds to rebuild Marysville, board member Bobbie Regan says, 'part of it will depend on when we go out for the next bond. If we go out in November or even May, you're talking about a year's delay. Assuming that Marysville's in there.'

The board could opt to borrow against a future bond measure, but the district already has $25 million to $35 million in debt for capital projects that would have been paid off through the bond, Regan says.

'As a board member I'm reluctant to take on more debt, but it depends what the project is,' she says. 'We're focused on trying to figure out the path forward, but it's not clear yet what the path will look like.'

Braheem Hazeem, a neighbor who created a 'Rebuilding Marysville in SE' Facebook page soon after the disaster, is frustrated with the district's handling of the project.

'They're not going to rebuild Marysville,' he says. 'The only way they're going to do it is hold us hostage with another tax measure.'

Hazeem, a conservative who opposed the bond measure, believes the district should have seized the moment just after the fire to ask community members and businesses to pitch in for a new building.

The moment has passed, he says. Now, 'there's no enthusiasm.'

If the old Marysville remains empty, Hazeem fears outer Southeast Portland will be littered with empty school buildings. Among them: Marshall, which closes this month, and the former Kellogg Middle School on Southeast Powell Boulevard, shuttered since 2007.

Marysville, in the meantime, has a temporary roof to keep the rain out, but is still fenced off. As a neighbor to the school for 50-plus years, Hazeem says, schools make all the difference in a community.

'Schools create an atmosphere that makes it difficult for people to do bad things,' he says. 'It's just vibrant. People are happier. I used to drive by that school and just stop, listen to the kids playing.'