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David Douglas schools bursting at seams

East Portland district braces for an influx of new students

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - David Douglas School District Superintendent Don Grotting speaks in his new office about the districts plan for growth.The David Douglas School District is bracing for a baby boom as growing families and migration from the inner city continues to grow East Portland.

Officials there say they are already over capacity and if predictions from the Portland State University Population Research Center come true, the small district will soon run out of rooms to put kids.

“We do not have one available classroom in any of our elementary schools,” says Superintendent Don Grotting. “If 3,000 students do really materialize here within the next 15 years, we’re going to be in trouble.”

The author of the Population Research Center’s report — Charles Rynerson — notes that several variables could alter the official forecast of 2,900 new students over the next 20 years. But he does say that during the past 20 years, the district added students at more than five times the statewide rate. He predicts that due to higher-than-average fertility rates and net migration, the district will see 500 new elementary students by 2018.

The district is mocking up a facilities management plan and tentatively estimates going out — pending board approval — for a $120 million bond in 2017, in part to build two new elementary schools.

Adding more capacity won’t be easy though.

David Douglas faces three major challenges in its long-term strategy for a construction bond: space, money and politics.

More growth, more kids

School board member Frieda Christopher says gentrification has long played a part in the area’s growth, but even David Douglas homes are getting expensive these days.

“The gentrification — the whitening of Portland as they like to call it — was a driver,” Christopher says. “I don’t know how affordable we are now, but we were more affordable.”

Christopher, who has been on the board for more than two decades, says that a rezoning process in 1996 led to more multifamily units being built there. This year’s city land use process will alter the landscape as well.

“You have to be very forward-thinking in school districts because nothing goes fast,” Christopher says. “I can’t declare a state of emergency on our capacity and have it resolved in six months. It doesn’t work that way.”

It will likely be an uphill climb to get a bond measure passed in lower-income and politically conservative David Douglas School District, though.

“The board’s very cognizant of we have, you know, a high population of early retirees,” Grotting says, “and in addition the poverty in this school district is unbelievable ... Parents, grandparents, how much can they stand to have their taxes go up?”

Bite taken out of tax base

But even if voters do approve the bond measure, the school district has another hurdle: urban renewal districts.

Urban renewal districts are areas where local governments freeze property taxes and skim off the annual growth to put back into commercial development. The idea is to catalyze economic development — such as what happened in the Pearl's River District — which in turn generates more tax revenue.

The Gateway and Lents Urban Renewal Districts so far have been less effective than the Pearl, but still take a bite out of the school district’s tax base to the tune of about $400 million in assessed property value.

That affects the amount of annual tax money it gets, as well as how much the district can reasonably ask voters for in a bond measure. District spokesman Dan McCue says that if the board does decide to go out for a bond, it has a difficult decision to make.

“Either we ask for a smaller bond measure than we really need, or we ask for a higher tax rate than we would want our residents to bear, or we would push the principal repayment back much longer than is ideal,” McCue says.

Once the money piece is squared away, David Douglas still has to find space for its new schools. The district is just 12 square miles of land that has long been built out. Each elementary school needs at least seven acres to have enough room for athletics and transportation, officials say. There are few parcels large enough that fit the bill. The district bought a 13-acre property near Southeast Foster Road and 122nd Avenue in the mid-2000s, but officials now believe it is too secluded for a school. They hope to swap it for other land, such as with the Portland Parks & Recreation Bureau.

Good schools with poor kids

The district’s academic outcomes might also be driving families to move to the area.

For a district with 80 different primary languages spoken and 62 percent of households on food assistance, its success rate surprises many observers. Particularly with students who are low-income, migrant, English language learners or racial minorities, the district’s graduation rates are well above state averages.

New America, a digital policy magazine, also just recognized David Douglas as being a model for pre-kindergarten-to-third-grade integration of dual-language learners. The magazine praises the district’s push-in English Language Development model.

DDSD was one of the first Oregon districts to offer full-day kindergarten, but with the statewide rollout of full-day kindergarten this fall, the district closed its doors to nonresident kids. Grotting says that may be a factor as to why elementary school enrollment actually fell this year.

But Grotting doesn’t expect it to last.

The middle and high schools have respectively grown 60.8 percent and 14.1 percent over the past 10 years. The district even moved its administrative offices out of the high school in June to free up more space.

“We can do stuff to deal with the growth in the middle and high school level. Not at the elementary schools,” McCue says. “There is literally nowhere to put them.”


David Douglas is just the latest East Portland school district wanting to build new schools as the city grows outward.

Reynolds School District passed a $125 million bond in May to replace three elementary schools and renovate the high school.

Centennial School District is looking at $100 million in facility needs, including a new middle school at Southeast 172nd Avenue and Southeast Foster Road. The Centennial School Board expects to vote on a proposal for a May 2016 bond measure in the new year.

Parkrose School District passed a $63 million bond in May 2011 which built a new middle school.

Shasta Kearns Moore
email: shasta@portlandtribune.com
Facebook: ShastaKearnsMoore


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