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Schools awarded $50 million in seismic upgrade grants

Business Oregon selected 41 schools to receive the money

SENATE PRESIDENT PETER COURTNEY'S OFFICE - Salem's Highland Elementary School conducted seismic upgrades in 2014 using leftover bond money. The school was not a recipient of the state school seismic safety grants. The state awarded a record $50.3 million in grants Thursday to conduct seismic safety upgrades on 41 schools.

The amount exceeds all of the money the state has awarded for school seismic upgrades since the grant program started six years ago.

“Today is a record-setting day, but we’re not finished. We’re not even close. Too many schools remain unsafe. Too many children remain at risk,” Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said in a statement.

Among Thursday's grant recipients were Multnomah County's Mill Park Elementary School in the David Douglas School District, which received $910,500; Lewis School in Portland Public Schools, $333,621; and Reynolds Middle School, $1.5 million.

Prior to Thursday, the state had awarded a total of $34 million in grants to 37 schools.

In the 2015 session, the Oregon Legislature approved the sale of $175 million in bonds to fund seismic safety grants for schools.

Business Oregon, which oversees the grant program, selected the grant recipients out of 107 applications seeking $123.3 million. Unfunded applications will be considered during another round of $125 million in awards later this year. New applications will be accepted over the summer.

Courtney said the volume of applications shows the need for the Legislature to boost funding for the grant program. He announced Thursday he plans to ask lawmakers to approve $200 million for the program during the 2017 session. He said he already has received word from Republicans that they will support the proposal.

PARIS ACHEN - Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, speaks at Highland Elementary School in north Salem to talk about the state's school seismic safety grant program. Forty-one schools around the state received a total of $50 million in grant money Thursday.He made the announcement at Highland Elementary School in Salem, where officials with the Salem-Keizer School District used leftover bond money in 2014 to make seismic improvements to the school’s unreinforced masonry walls. Highland is not one of the recipients of the state’s school seismic safety grant program.

A 2007 survey conducted by the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries listed more than 1,000 school buildings in Oregon at high or very high risk of collapse in a major earthquake.

It’s unclear how many of those schools have addressed problems identified in the survey or how great the need is for additional funding to pay for seismic improvements. School districts are required to report any seismic upgrades annually to the Department of Geology and Mineral Industries. However, not all school districts do so, and the list is not comprehensive.

Many of Oregon’s schools were built prior to the 1990s before geologists considered Oregon at high risk for major earthquake activity. The discovery of the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the Oregon Coast revealed the potential hazards of the state’s older schools. Many schools, such as Highland Elementary, were built with unreinforced masonry.

The upgrades at Highland strengthened the unreinforced masonry, which support the school’s walls and ceilings, said Bruce Lathers, manager of construction for Salem-Keizer School District.

“In the case of a large seismic event those brick walls tend to crumble so this project involved erecting a steel structure inside the building for the floors and the roof,” Lathers said. “In the event that the walls crumble, this structure, which is braced, is built to withstand that 9.0-plus seismic event.”

Seismologists now conclude that a major earthquake has hit the Oregon Coast an average of every 300 years for the past 10,000 years. The last major quake took place in January 1700.

“We’ve made more progress today than we made in the last decade, but we’re on borrowed time,” Courtney said in a statement. “We can’t lose our momentum.”

By Paris Achen
Portland Tribune Capital Bureau Reporter
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