Joe RodriguezA decade ago, when Oregon faced one if its greatest-ever infrastructure challenges in replacing its failing bridges, state leaders knew exactly where to look to set priorities.

Today, we face a new challenge — our aging, and in some cases obsolete, school facilities are reaching the end of their useful lives, and only strategic investment will solve the problem.

The problem is, we don’t know where to start.

When we replaced our bridges, we knew exactly what spans would get the greatest return on investment — what bridges were closest to failing, how much traffic they carried, how much it would cost to replace them. We set a master list of priorities statewide, and we continue to chip away at it.

Even though school facilities are a local concern, we need a statewide strategy to support school facility needs and capital investment planning.

There are two bills in the Legislature that would do that — HB 2916 and SB 540 would establish a statewide task force on Capital Improvement Planning, and direct the Department of Education to establish and maintain a public facility information database that includes energy use, seismic ratings, education performance, operations and maintenance costs, enrollment projections and technology upgrade status.

Think of it as an Oregon roadmap for our school buildings.

This kind of work is being promoted by the Community Investment Initiative, a group of public- and private-sector community leaders helping create jobs by looking for new answers for 21st century challenges. We’ve partnered with seven school districts in the Portland region to develop a school facilities analysis tool.

That tool assesses school conditions while also factoring in performance and demographic characteristics. The Data Resource Center at Metro, the regional government, has provided the technology to help create this web-based tool.

If it were used statewide, it could help the Oregon Department of Education, because it factors in all of the facility areas outlined in HB 2916 and SB 540, and includes additional student demographic analysis. The need to protect and enhance Oregonians’ investment in public school facilities is critical as buildings age and the need for technology enhancements increases.

The initiative also believes that investing in infrastructure to support the creation of living-wage jobs is tied directly to supporting workforce development. This means fostering educational opportunities for all students, statewide, in fields with high employment potential is critical.

ECONorthwest analyzed Oregon’s high school graduating class of 2006 and determined that the percentage of high school graduates who completed a college degree by 2011 in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields was only 2.5 percent.

Given the growth of technology-related companies in Oregon, and the need for workforce development, increasing STEM educational opportunities for Oregon students will help provide greater employment opportunities, thereby increasing overall economic prosperity.

We’ve got plenty of jobs in STEM fields, and we’ll have more in the future — but Oregon is not educating many students in STEM programs. Providing more STEM programs and making these opportunities more available, especially to underserved urban and rural communities, is imperative. If not, Oregon STEM employers will continue to hire from outside the state to meet their workforce needs.

Two legislative bills also being considered this session include SB 498, which will increase training opportunities in essential STEM employment fields, and HB 2636, which establishes STEM leadership and grants statewide.

In order to deliver and increase STEM programs in all educational settings, we must address classroom readiness, and using a statewide facility analysis tool will help determine capital improvement needs to provide such programs.

The initiative encourages support for these bills. Enhancing our investment in public school facilities statewide, and expanding STEM educational programs designed to increase human capital opportunities for all Oregon students, will directly benefit Oregon’s economy for years to come.

For more, see

Joe Rodriguez is a member of the Community Investment Initiative’s Leadership Council, and chairs the council’s schools facilities committee. He is a former superintendent of the Hillsboro School District. In the interest of full disclosure, Mark Garber, president of Community Newspapers, is a member of the steering committee of the Community Investment Initiative.

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