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Residents discuss future of West Gresham Elementary

West Gresham Elementary School has seen better days.

The building itself faces several physical problems, such as a water damaged foundation, outdated systems and technology, several non-ADA compliant areas and space limitations.

Around 35 community members gathered at the school on Tuesday night, Aug. 4, to discuss the future of the beloved 92 year old school at 330 W. Powell Blvd.

“West Gresham, a lot of times in the community when I talk about it, you get a lot of different reactions,” said Jim Schlachter, Gresham-Barlow School District superintendent. “Sometimes when you talk about West Gresham, people talk about the building. There’s an understanding and appreciation for its historic look and what’s all there.”

West Gresham is the second-oldest school in the district after Gresham High School, which was built in 1914.

“Other times when you talk about West Gresham, what you talk about is the community, and that West Gresham is a place more than a building and really a coming together of people.”

Schlachter introduced Scott Rose from DLR Group, a Portland-based architecture and engineering firm, to talk about the future of the school.

Rose asked three questions of the audience: What do you like about West Gresham School, what do you dislike and what would you like to see happen?

The audience’s list of attributes about West Gresham was long and spanned many areas. Many praised the sense of history, the location, the big tree out front and the sense of community.

“When my daughter went to school here, there was a different principal every year,” said Kristen Marlo Warren, “but the culture stayed the same.”

As for dislikes, many criticized the flow and low number of parking spaces, lack of available space, technological issues, wheelchair accessibility and the active burials at nearby Gresham Pioneer Cemetery. One former teacher even remarked on the smell from a neighboring crematorium. OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Active burials at the Gresham Pioneer Cemetery have become a point of contention for some parents whose children contend with close quarters at West Gresham Elementary School.

Before Rose asked about the community’s opinions moving forward, he addressed one restriction.

“Please don’t tell me we should sell it to McMenamins,” Rose said with a chuckle, referring to the regional restaurant, pub and resort chain. “I can’t make McMenamins buy it.”

Many residents say they want to keep a school on the property, either completely rebuilt or by making adjustments to the existing structure. Other audience members floated the idea of creating a community center or arts center in the former elementary school.

The school district will consider three options to:

-  replace the structure on site,

-  re-purpose the building for non-educational uses, or

-  close the school and sell the property

Changes to West Gresham would likely necessitate a bond measure. The last bond measure in Gresham failed in 2013, but earlier this year 51.8 percent of voters passed a Reynolds School District bond.

“A bond issue is in all likelihood going to be issued again,” Rose said in the forum.

If a new elementary school was built, either at the existing site or a new one, Rose said his crew couldn’t build a new school in a summer. Construction generally takes 10 months.

At this juncture, DLR Group and the district are just looking for community input.

Trisha Knobbes has three children, two of whom attend West Gresham. Her family intentionally moved to its current home before the children started school so they wouldn’t have to switch schools. Now that may change.

“I hope that it’s rebuilt,” Knobbes said. “I want the kids to keep going to school here.”

House District 50 Rep. Carla Piluso, D-Gresham, had similar feelings when she moved to the West Gresham area. The education of her daughter, who just graduated from college, started at West Gresham Elementary.

“It exceeded all our expectations,” Piluso said. “It was always a rush down the stairs to the art tunnel, because my daughter’s name was in the wall on the art. So it’s those kinds of things that just make it really part of that feeling of community (and) lifelong friends.”

On the future on the property, Piluso, like many others, is torn on whether or not the school should stay in its current location.

“I struggle with that,” she admitted. “From an emotional standpoint, you bet I would. Is it really what’s best for our community, the needs of our kids, the dollar amount that’s going to be attached to this? I know we can raise the money, I know how funding streams work, but truly I think the biggest hurdle to overcome is just the five acres.”

One issue addressed at the meeting is the size of the lot. Most area schools sit on 10 acres of land, while West Gresham is on five. Moving forward, space could be a potential issue.

“I love some of the thoughts that came up today for an arts center or a community center or something associated with education. I would support that,” she said. “Sometimes we just have to put the emotions aside and see what truly turns out to be the better option with what we have to work with.”

The community will have another chance to address the future of West Gresham Elementary at 6:15 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 3. The community feedback will go to a bond measure planning committee, which will make a recommendation to the school board in December or January.

“I’m very pleased with how tonight went,” said West Gresham Principal Carlynn Capps, who mentioned the variety of viewpoints expressed at the meeting and the importance of the conversation. “This is an issue we’ve been wrestling with as a community for a long time, and people need to get involved, pay attention and speak up.”   

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