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D21 to seek facilities survey

The old Chenowith Middle School gym, located in the left side of the building, above, has been in continuous use since the classroom portion of the school was closed and the windows boarded up. The school district is investigating whether the site could be used for new facilities.

The old Chenowith Middle School gym, located in the left side of the building, above, has been in continuous use since the classroom portion of the school was closed and the windows boarded up. The school district is investigating whether the site could be used for new facilities. Photo by Mark Gibson.

The school district will conduct a survey of the community to learn what its appetite is for building — and paying for — new facilities.

The North Wasco County School District 21 board voted Thursday to proceed with a survey process, and named board members Kathy Ursprung, Ernie Blatz and Lori McCanna to a subcommittee to help work with a surveying firm to formulate questions for the wide-ranging survey.

The district will seek bids from three companies.

District Superintendent Candy Armstrong said that, before the district goes much further, it needs to know what community preferences are: Sports fields? Elementaries? An Early Learning Center? A new high school? Fire and safety improvements to existing buildings?

Armstrong is a firm believer in surveying ever since a firm told the district in 2008 it would only get a 35 percent yes vote on a bond, and that’s exactly what the vote turned out to be.

This could only be a first of several surveys, to narrow the scope of public interest. Further surveys would test the waters for more specific proposals.

The school district has aging, crowded facilities that are expensive to maintain. Last year, a self-appointed citizen group formed a task force to study possible locations for new facilities and presented its findings to the district last fall.

The school district is already doing preliminary research on two potential areas for facilities, one of which — the Chenowith Middle School property — was listed by the task force.

The district is also talking to Columbia Gorge Community College about a collaboration on facilities on college property, though it is not looking at the “Hilltop” site proposed by the citizen group.

The college-owned Hilltop site is within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic area, and the district has learned the chances of building there are very slim.

“The college is at least willing to work with us on a concept,” Armstrong said.

She said the college created a facilities master plan some years ago and the school district is looking at “where they planned to build anyway.”

The specific area of campus that the district is looking at is land that the college already did preparatory work for, and it has “the utilities and infrastructure in place,” Armstrong said.

As for the Chenowith Middle School site, the district went directly to the group that had the most potential to put a kibosh on it: The Friends of the Columbia Gorge.

The Friends is a powerful watchdog group that monitors land use in the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.

Armstrong and board member John Nelson spoke to two officials with the Friends and had an “encouraging” meeting, she said.

The Friends officials recommended that any new construction have a less visible profile. Current buildings there are in an east-west alignment and they suggested a north-south alignment.

Earlier, the Wasco County Planning Department told the school that as long as the building was in continuous use — and the gym at Chenowith Middle has been used since the school closed —the district had the right to rebuild there, Nelson said.

Armstrong said the Friends encouraged the district to get a more specific determination from the county regarding the existing use of the property.

To do that, the district needs to submit a rough site plan to the county, showing the approximate orientation and size of any new buildings, Armstrong said, and the district agreed it will submit such a plan.

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