UPDATE • Community members press for answers; district says money is available

Nearly two years after Marysville School was damaged by fire, Portland Public Schools is still expecting $3.5 million in insurance money to rebuild the damaged structure.

District spokesman Matt Shelby told the Tribune on Wednesday that district leaders are still in negotiations with the insurance company for the funds.

'We anticipate the money will be there,' Shelby said. 'We anticipate the school board and superintendent will provide us with further direction (on how to use the funds) this fall.'

All options will be on the table, he said: everything from rebuilding the burnt portion of the school, to waiting for a future bond measure to rebuild Marysville into a 21st century school.

In all, the district will have received $4.6 million in insurance money for the school rebuild.

The district has spent $1 million of that on design development by DLR Group, a contract that has been completed, Shelby said.

The district has spent all of the insurance money it's received for personal property loss, which covered the computers, furniture and other items destroyed by the fire.

Shelby admitted that 'the pressure is building' for action at Marysville, but said the discussion was put on hold in the summertime because the board is meeting just once a month.

Nonetheless, he pointed out: 'Even if the bond would've passed, the students would be at Rose City Park next year,' he said. 'It's not like a surprise. … Teachers knew. What we don't know is where they'll be the year after that.'

Most citizens had no idea more insurance money was forthcoming.

Since voters did not approve the school modernization bond in May that would have spent $21 million to rebuild Marysville as a 21st century school, the building languishes - fenced off and boarded up.

Meanwhile, when school starts again this fall, students from outer Southeast Portland will hop on a school bus and ride 45 minutes across town to their adopted school, Rose City Park in Northeast Portland. Student enrollment since the fire has dropped off; the school is expecting 389 students this fall, compared to 435 in 2009.

Community members are growing increasingly frustrated by the situation.

'As a taxpayer, I'd like to see my money spent wisely,' says Jeff Lovell, a Mt. Tabor resident who works in software quality.

Community picnic

The Marysville School community is inviting neighbors and school families to an Aug. 13 picnic to spread awareness of the plight of their building limbo.

'We're getting the impression we're never going to be rebuilt,' says Kate Johnson, a Marysville teacher of eight years who's been reassigned this year to nearby Kelly Elementary.

'We're at a dead end right now,' she adds. 'These are kids; this is a community, a small community. With Marshall (campus) closing, it doesn't feel good to the families.'

Johnson says rather than package Marysville in a future bond measure, she's heard from parents that they want the district to just rebuild Marysville, in its original location.

She says it's not necessary that the school be loaded with bells and whistles in a modernized 21st century school, as district leaders had been hoping for. 'We just want to be rebuilt,' she says. 'We just want to be in our neighborhood.'

Johnson says the PTA and a group of residents who've been working on a 'Rebuilding Marysville in SE Portland' Facebook campaign have been working to keep the pressure on the school board.

Board members had promised the Marysville reconstruction would come up for discussion again after the bond measure failed, Johnson says. It did not.

'More of the community members need to be heard,' Johnson says. 'They have to live and walk by that school every day. It's not fair to them.'

Community members are invited to bring a lunch or dish to share to the free public picnic, which will include kids' activities. It's set for noon to 3 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 13, at the Marysville School Park, 7733 S.E. Raymond St.

District's approved expenses

According to district records, PPS has received $3.084 million to date from its insurance company, McLarens Young International, since the Nov. 10, 2009, fire.

PPS has 'approved expenses of' (i.e. spent) $3.4 million, on costs including moving students, staff and materials to Rose City Park; replacing classroom supplies and curriculum; paying personal property claims; covering student transportation to Rose City Park; temporarily stabilizing the Marysville building; and future building designs.

That puts the district in the hole by $316,000, with more expenses lined up for this school year - namely transporting students back and forth by school bus.

The design work for the new school is on hold, after the school board in April hired DLR Group, an architecture and engineering firm, to begin the process. Lovell says he cautioned the board at the time against the action.

'Some people call it putting the cart before the horse; I call it gambling,' Lovell says, noting that while he doesn't have kids, his wife is a teacher, and he's deeply invested in education issues.

Some of the district's public information doesn't reflect the new reality. On Marysville's online school enrollment and data form, for example, the notes read: 'Pending voter authorization of the bond in May, work to rebuild the Marysville school will begin this summer, with a target move-in date of the 2012 school year.'

Lovell says he did not support the recent bond measure because he thought it was too large, and was also concerned with the speed at which the teachers' union contract was approved.

Evaluating options

District leaders have already pledged to return soon with another bond measure proposal, which would again prioritize Marysville for a rebuild.

To gain public support a future bond measure, Lovell says, the district should be 'gaining our trust by showing us they're doing the right thing.'

In June, Lovell wrote to the district with questions about Marysville's finances, as did at least one other citizen. In a reply, Dan Jung, capital project manager for the district's Office of School Modernization, said the school was covered by an insurance policy that had a $1 million deductible. The insurance company also would only pay to rebuild the damaged portion of the building to its pre-fire condition, he wrote.

'Like many Portland schools, Marysville is an aging building (originally constructed in 1921) that has not received significant updates in recent months,' Jung wrote. 'There are numerous options being analyzed ranging from simple replacement of the burned portion, to a full modernization of the school.'

Because the district's bond did not pass, Jung wrote, the Marysville property would be maintained while officials continue to evaluate rebuilding options.

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