District still seeking revenue sources to pay down construction debt

The school has been built and the bills have been paid.

Still, Vernonia schools are carrying $4.3 million in construction debt.

Kenneth Cox, the Vernonia schools superintendent, is optimistic enough donations, grants and assistance will soon come to enable the district to walk away from its $40 million rebuild project without placing long-term burden on its general fund.

“School districts’ budgets are tight enough as it is without having construction debt,” Cox said.

In 2007, the Nehalem River and Rock Creek flooded Vernonia, causing around $100 million in damage and ravaging school buildings. In December 2010, construction began on a new K-12 school and it opened in September.

While children are back at school in Vernonia, the challenge to come up with the full amount isn’t over yet, said Sen. Betsy Johnson, co-chair of Vernonia’s fund raising Catalyst campaign committee.

“We have demonstrated that we can deliver,” Johnson said.

The initial goal was to get the school open in time for the fall of 2012, and while it would be easy to focus on other priorities now that the goal has been accomplished, that’s not going to happen, Johnson said. Everyone on the committee is committed to seeing the project through to the finish line, she said.

Several contributors are being eyed to bring in the last bit of needed cash, from businesses, state funding and nonprofit foundations to smaller, grassroots alumni fund raising.

“The strategy is to just keep looking for opportunities that might present themselves,” Cox said.

Money keeps trickling in, thanks to hard work from alumni, especially, he said.

Folks in Vernonia are proud of all the work that’s been done — locally and at a state and national level — to get to this point, keeping them optimistic, he said.

“Everyone’s got smiles on their faces,” Cox said.

In the meantime, the building is filled with activity. The school-based health center is opening on Jan. 11 and a Las Vegas act is coming to perform at the school for the Vernonia Friendship Jamboree in August. A Bureau of Land Management grant is helping build a greenhouse that will grow plants for stream restoration.

“We are trying to make the school as community-centric as possible,” Cox said.

The Metropolitan Group, a Portland fund raising agency, was hired in 2009 to help look for and secure funds, will continue through the end of their contract in 2013, Cox said.

He’s thrilled at how Vernonia residents and others from outside the community have pulled together to make the school a reality.

“They’ve really stepped up to help us pull off what we have so far,” Cox said.

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