Assignment: Fix aging schools in Crook County

Issue could come before voters as early as May

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: July 24. 2007 8:15AM PST

PRINEVILLE — Many people know what it’s like to attend a crowded public school with too many students for too few classrooms and teachers.

In the Crook County School District, nearly all the students know that feeling. Officials there say that every school building is currently at or above capacity, at a time when Crook continues to be one of the fastest-growing counties in the state.

For months, a facilities review committee has been working on recommendations for the Crook County School Board about where, when and how to replace and renovate existing schools and construct new ones.

The committee’s recommendations should be finished by this fall and could result in a school bond on the ballot for the elections next May or November 2008, Superintendent Steve Swisher said.

This week, members of the facilities committee will be interviewing potential underwriters for the bond. Swisher said the process is in its early stages, and what would be included in the bond, as well as a dollar figure, is still up in the air.

“My best guess would be a May election, but a November election at the latest next year for some type of building project that would probably include major repair kind of issues for buildings and perhaps one or two (new) schools or an expansion of a school,” Swisher said.

Aging facilities

The newest school in the district is Crook County High School, which was completed in 1994. That school is crowded and could be one of the facilities looked at for expansion, Swisher said.

But the fact that the district’s newest building already is nearly 15 years old — at a time when the county has seen a steady increase in student numbers — “doesn’t really tell the whole story,” Swisher said.

“The next newest school built is the current Cecil Sly (Elementary School) and it was built as a middle school — it was built in 1962,” he said, adding that after that, the most recently built schools were in 1952 and 1946. “If you look at the dates here, (it’s) 50 years in the making … so we’re not going to solve it in one year.”

The schools with the most serious problems, Swisher and School Board member Mark Sev­erson said, are Powell Butte Elementary School, Ochoco Elementary School and

Crooked River Elementary School. The district also includes Cecil Sly Elementary School and Paulina Elementary School.

Severson said that the age of many of the district’s schools makes it difficult to upgrade them for new technology, which has an impact on the quality of education.

Ochoco Elementary School has structural problems as well as a poor location along a major highway, meaning that it is the most likely candidate for replacement, Severson said. Powell Butte could also be moved because of its dangerous location on state Highway 126.

“Ochoco has got a lot of issues with it — it’s the inability to upgrade the facility itself is the biggest problem, and then also the library, primarily, has a real foundation issue,” he said. “I don’t want to say it’s sinking, but you could place a basketball on one corner of that room and it will roll to another.”

Swisher said that a group of architects and engineers worked with the facilities committee to survey the buildings. They also targeted renovations, such as new flooring or ventilation systems, to extend the life of each school building.

“They’ve all basically said, you know, Ochoco school probably isn’t worth repairing … and they’ve said the same thing about Powell Butte school,” Swisher said. “Now, the third one eventually, although not as urgent as those two, is (that) Crooked River school is long and tired and perhaps it should be replaced, but it’s not in the same urgent category.”

The Crook County Court has expressed interest in donating a piece of land near the current Powell Butte school to the school district, which could form the site for a new school. Powell Butte Elementary School was built in 1930 and sits on Highway 126 between Bend and Redmond, an increasingly busy route. Ochoco Elementary also has a potentially dangerous location, on U.S. Highway 26 near where it intersects with 126 on the west side of Prineville.

Severson, who just started his first term on the school board, said that the facilities committee — which he previously sat on — has talked about using the Powell Butte and Crooked River buildings as community halls, rather than demolishing the structures.

“The facilities committee recognized the history and the culture that exists at Powell Butte,” Severson said. “The facilities committee felt that Crooked River was a school that has a lot of history in the community and that possibly it could be converted to a community hall or something, but stay in the school district or stay in the condition it is now used for various community events. I believe at that time, also, Ochoco was determined to be a school that could be torn down — it has a lot of structural issues.”

Public concerns

According to the results of a survey the facilities committee conducted earlier this year, Prine­ville residents also are worried about the state of the district’s school buildings. Three out of the top four issues that people said are the most serious ones facing the school district had to do with facilities and funding.

The top problem that respondents identified for the district was overcrowding, followed by lack of funding. After drugs and alcohol, “facilities in poor condition” is the fourth-largest problem facing the school district out of a total of nine issues, according to the survey.

The top two goals that those included in the survey named for the school district in the next five years also related to the facilities question: find funding for new schools and reduce class sizes.

Swisher said the district is expecting another increase in students this year.

“I’m interested to see what happens this Sept. 1,” he said. “The housing market’s cooled and all those things, so it’s hard to tell. Our preliminary indicators like kindergarten sign-ups and those kind of things indicate we have a surge coming, but it’s unknown right now — I hope we have a little bit of a cool off.”

Crook County’s school-age population is expected to double in the next 20 years, Swisher has said in the past. Without new or expanded buildings, the district could have to look at adding more modular classrooms — which are already in place at some schools — or switching to a staggered scheduling system, with students attending class at unusual hours of the day or in the summer.

Despite the facilities needs at several schools throughout the district, the committee’s recommendations and upcoming bond will probably address only the most urgent problems, Swisher said.

“It will be very measured and probably be (to) replace a school and build a new school for growth, and maybe do a little expansion on the high school,” he said. “That’s a guess right now, but what the plan will do is perhaps lay it out over the next 20 years — what the next step five to seven years after that will be, and the next step after that.”

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