It would cost $70 million to repair D21 schools, and $257 million to replace them, an architect leading a long range facilities planning process for the school district said Tuesday.
All of the schools in the district except the middle school are at a point where replacement, not repair, is indicated, according to accepted industry standards, said Richard Higgins, an architect hired by the district to lead a long range facilities planning process.
“Outside of the middle school, all your schools are in tough shape,” he said.
Each of the schools is also beyond its capacity, with the high school and Chenowith Elementary being the most dramatic examples at 77 and 91 students past capacity, respectively.
“The high school is woefully inadequate in space,” Higgins said.
The state legislature asked that all districts do such evaluations of their buildings, so it could get a sense of the scope of the problem with aging school buildings statewide.
The scope was needed as a prelude to possibly providing state money for facilities, which would be a departure from the historical and ongoing requirement in Oregon that local taxpayers, not state coffers, pay for building schools.
However, while the Legislature has asked for this inventory of the condition of schools, North Wasco County School District 21 Superintendent Candy Armstrong noted that the Legislature has just made a massive investment in education that will produce $1 billion a year to improve instruction. That could dampen state interest in helping with construction costs.
“I don’t think we’re going to be able to go back to the Legislature to ask for more investment in K-12,” she said.
D21 School Board member Dawn Rasmussen said, “There’s a snowball’s chance in heck that the state would pony up $257 million to our district, so realistically, this is going to have to be at the local level…We can’t hope for a life ring from the Legislature.”
Higgins agreed the district likely couldn’t expect the state to give out money.
The district asked voters last year to approve a 50-year bond authority to issue $235 million of bonds to replace four schools. The bond was strongly defeated, gaining only a 40 percent yes vote.
Also measured in the long range planning is “educational adequacy,” which looks at eight criteria ranging from school capacity and instructional materials to safety and security.
All of the schools except the middle school were rated below adequate.
The meeting Tuesday was open to the public. Two more public planning meetings are slated for Nov. 5 and Dec. 10, both at The Dalles Middle School library from 6-8 p.m.
The effort will produce a 10-year plan for facilities. The cost of the planning is $25,000 and will be reimbursed by the state, Higgins said.
Part of the planning work included getting population projections, which the district recently got from Portland State University. It projected an addition of only 90 students over 10 years, a small increase for a student population that has historically held around the 3,000-student mark.
Also required was that D21 collaborate with other taxing entities. It has held meetings with other entities to meet that requirement. Higgins said 85 percent of the work needed to create the long range plan was done. Community involvement is another element, and he encouraged attendees to reach out to others to come to future meetings.
Higgins said any repair work to buildings would have to involve a review by the State Historic Preservation Office, since all the schools are 50 years old or older, other than the middle school.
The historic element can be an expensive factor, Armstrong said, noting that the replacement of windows at the high school, for example, was a prohibitively expensive proposition because of requirements to adhere to standards for historic buildings.
Higgins said the facilities evaluation criteria—a comprehensive look in which every system and aspect of the building is categorized as needing minor, moderate or major repair or replacement—was developed 21 years ago, and he was part of the process that developed it. Each year, the costs for various categories of repairs are updated. This year, a few went down, but most went up “a lot,” he said.
The industry standard is to compare repair costs to replacement costs, and if repairs are at least 30 percent of the cost of replacement, then repair is not advisable, he said. A score of 30 percent or higher is “an indication you’ve got serious problems.”
Everything but the middle school and Dry Hollow Elementary were at or above the 30 percent threshold. Dry Hollow was close, at 28 percent.
Higgins said Wahtonka was the worst school, with a 46 percent score. Col. Wright at 34 percent, Chenowith at 31 percent and the high school at 30.
Armstrong noted that the $70 million cost just to repair the schools would not qualify for a bond measure because some of the repairs would not last long enough to qualify for bond money.
While other states, like Washington, provide significant dollars for school buildings, up to 60 percent of the total cost. Oregon has only recently begun to provide grants of $2-$8 million, depending on the size of the district. D21 would qualify for a $4 million grant. The long-range facilities planning is necessary to qualify for the grant.
Armstrong said the district was setting aside revenue from land sales for capital projects. The district owns 100 acres of land in Columbia View Heights, and is close to finalizing the sale of 30 acres to Mid-Columbia Medical Center for a new hospital campus.
Along with the construction of the hospital would come infrastructure improvements for the rest of the acreage there that the district owns. It plans to sell another 40 acres, and to retain 30 acres for a future school. The infrastructure improvements will make the land there much more accessible and valuable, Armstrong said.
As for building capacity, all the elementary schools have portables—there are 12 in all—that take overflow students. The high school has four off-campus spaces it also uses, including one space at Wahtonka Community School and three spaces it rents at Columbia Gorge Community College.
Armstrong said when the former District 12, with 2,000 students, and the former District 9, with 1,000 students, combined in 2004 to form D21, the new, larger, district automatically did not have buildings with the capacity for the larger student population.
Also, the recession happened shortly after the districts merged, forcing tough decisions about where to put students.
“That’s a piece that people need to keep in mind,” she said.
A new part of elementary classrooms is a “calming space” in classrooms that takes away capacity, Higgins said.
The calming space trend is being seen all over, he said.