Following an executive session, the school board Wednesday reached a consensus to pursue talks with the community college on a “facilities concept.”
No further information was disclosed about the concept, except to say it was not the “Hilltop” concept presented to the school board late last year.
The school board will also pursue further information on building an elementary school at the former Chenowith Middle School site.
The North Wasco County School District 21 was told in December about several citizen-generated concepts for sites for new high schools. One, called Hilltop, is on college-owned property.
However, that site lies partly within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
And that, in a nutshell, is now seen as a deal-killer, according to the people who presented the concepts in the first place.
Dr. Frank Toda, president of Columbia Gorge Community College, spoke to the board Wednesday about a new nationwide trend of high school/community college partnerships in what’s called a K-14 seamless education system.
Such partnerships not only boost high school graduation rates, but boost college student retention rates, Toda said. High school students can take college classes and graduate from high school while having also earned an associate of arts degree from the community college.
When high school students started attending classes at the college, Toda said, “It was a sea change in the atmosphere of the college.”
He said when high school students see older college students so focused on their education, “It’s catching.”
He said several state programs are aimed at bridging high school and college. Now it was a matter of getting students to cross that bridge.
The college has $7.3 million in state funding for construction that requires a local match, and an anonymous donor who is potentially willing to make the match as long as the curriculum is a healthcare pathway, Toda said.
The state money was initially earmarked for construction at the Hood River campus, but as long as it is spent within the college district, it could be used in The Dalles, Toda said.
He envisions a life skills center that would go beyond the successful welding program that now draws high school students to the campus.
He said the college has three buildable lots on campus. He is considering possibilities for the lots, including building dorms as a student draw and perhaps a gymnasium.
Later in the meeting, Doug Kirchhofer, part of the citizen group that generated the facilities concepts, told the board that a drawback to keeping the concepts “under wraps” was that it meant they didn’t get feedback on them first.
Since making them public, he said, they’ve received feedback “and we realize how broken the process is with the gorge commission.”
The gorge commission oversees the national scenic area. In earlier meetings, Kirchhofer talked about getting the commission to “flex” on the issue of building schools in the scenic area, which would require either moving the scenic area boundary or changing the land use designation in the scenic area.
But Kirchhofer told the school board Wednesday that he was told, “Basically any sort of activity to make precedent to change the urban growth boundary lines will be fought.”
The school board also didn’t express interest in a new concept presented Wednesday by Kirchhofer and Kurt Conger to put a school on 58 acres of privately owned orchard land above Old Dufur Road, between East 10th and East 18th Streets.
The orchard site, now owned by John Geiger but leased to several others, would use irrigation district water, and that was seen as a significant drawback by school board members.
Dennis Whitehouse, facilities director for the school district, said when he worked for the college he tried to get an irrigation district to provide water, but gave up after two years of negotiating.
The board also worried that converting orchard land, even to educational use, could be resisted.
Instead, the school board will focus on the possibility of building a grade school on the site of the mothballed Chenowith Middle School.
As part of that, the school board will reach out to the Friends of the Columbia Gorge, a powerful watchdog group that closely monitors scenic area activities.
Board member John Nelson said he would be talking to the Friends to see what their feelings are on building a grade school there, so the school district isn’t seen as being “antagonistic” to the Friends.
Superintendent Candy Armstrong said the district needed to learn beforehand whether a proposal to build there would be objected to by the Friends.
Board member Ernie Blatz was comfortable with the idea, however, and said, “This shouldn’t ruffle any feathers.”
He said he talked to Wasco County planners – who administer scenic area rules in the county — who told him, “we could do whatever we want with this property” because it has a historic use as a school and it is
permissible to rebuild a school.
After the citizen group in early December presented the three scenarios for where to build a new high school, the school board decided to talk to local gorge commissioners to get a feel for the likelihood of being able to build within the scenic area.
Nelson and Blatz met with gorge commissioners Dan Ericksen and Rodger Nichols. The upshot of the meeting was the Hilltop site and a site by Interstate 84 were “taken off the table,” Blatz said.
He learned that the scenic area boundary was drawn on a smallish map with a thick magic marker, and the line was drawn through the middle school property. Later, the land was rezoned for small agricultural use.
He said a key to putting a new building on the property is that the existing one is still in use, and “at this point, we’ve been using it.”
He said, “As far as putting a grade school up there, we can do it.”
Blatz will ask the Wasco County planning department what information is needed to apply to put a new facility there.