Ontario School District wants bond to improve security, drive construction projects

The Ontario School District is taking a new request for a bond measure to the voters in May. (The Enterprise/File).

ONTARIO – Voters in the Ontario School District will see a familiar item on their ballot for the May special election — a bond measure to pay for school construction and better security for the district’s roughly 2,400 students.

The Ontario School Board unanimously voted during its February meeting to ask voters to approve a $25 million bond issue, two years after a similar proposal was narrowly defeated.

The May 2017 package was shot down with 1,076 voting in favor and 1,256 against.

If approved in this May’s election, the bond would pay for a new building on the middle school campus.

It would also renovate and expand four other schools, including a new entryway for Ontario High School.

“The projects slated for the upcoming school bond focus primarily on supporting the safety of our students/staff, as well as improving our instructional space to support the academic achievement for Ontario students,” Ontario Superintendent Nicole Albisu wrote in an email. “The bottom line is that we want our students and staff to be safe, healthy, and comfortable in their learning environment.”

Ontario School Board chairman Eric Evans agrees.

“We want to make sure kids are not only safe but feel safe as well,” said Evans.

The proposed bond would be repaid from property taxes over 20 years. The district estimates the cost to property owners at $1 per $1,000 of assessed value, or $200 per year for a $200,000 home.

Through the Oregon School Capital Improvement Matching Program, the state will add an additional $4 million to the projects if the bond passes, for a total of $29 million.

Albisu said the proposed projects were carefully planned with the help of a facilities task force.

“They really focused on projects that are truly important to kids,” Albisu said.

Last year, the task force conducted an online survey to assess what the community wanted for school facilities that drew 211 responses.

About 60 percent of respondents preferred putting sixth-graders in a separate building at Ontario Middle School.

The biggest portion of the bond – about $8.9 million – would be for the new six-grade building. That would move all the sixth-graders back to middle school by 2021 where they would have access to higher level classes and extracurricular opportunities, such as student council, band and choir programs and sports, according to Albisu.

“It’s always been an intent to move sixth grade back to the middle school, so that they have access to more facilities,” said Albisu. “It would also prevent kids from Aiken, Pioneer and Cairo from having move to a new school for one year and then move again.”

In addition, largest school district in Malheur County continues to project steady population growth, with the greatest impact expected in elementary schools, according to Albisu.

“We also have a lot more different students. So, to meet the needs of students in special education, the gifted and talented, and refugee population, what is really needed is more space,” she said.

Albisu said schools like Aiken have had to convert closets and other multi-use spaces into offices and classrooms.

The district is proposing to put $4 million toward five new classrooms and other additions at Aiken Elementary; $2.3 million for entryway upgrades and an intermediate wing at Alameda Elementary; and nearly $1 million toward a new hallway and additional classroom at Cairo Elementary.

Those projects would also address school security issues amid recent school shootings.

The design of Aiken, which opened its doors to students in 1957, may have been fine back then, but in 2019, there are different needs, one of them being safety.

Albisu said Aiken has interior hallways, meaning if students want to leave, they’ll have to do so being vulnerable to the outside. The doors remained locked from the outside. There’s also no single-entry point like modern schools.

The projects at Cairo – built in 1956 – would also add more safety features.

 “I don’t think we look at safety the same as 15 years ago,” said Albisu. She added that the 2019 bond issue is more focused on school safety than previous school bonds.

The proposed bond includes projects for major renovations and additions to Ontario High School.

Although facilities have been well maintained over the years, Ontario High’s campus is over 60 years old and is in need of new upgrades to meet ADA compliance and other accessibility requirements, according to the Mary Jo Evers, the district’s director of finance.

Among the proposed projects at the high school is $4.5 million for new locker rooms, which are currently only accessible by stairs.

“The times have changed. The locker rooms are old and not really accessible,” Albisu said. “We want to make our facilities a safe place for kids.”

Other projects at the high school include remodeling the band-choir room, replacing classroom windows, adding sprinklers to the vo-tech building and upgrading safety at the school’s main entryway.

Albisu said the previous bond had proposed to build a $10 million gym at the high school. This time, the district wants to add an athletic field house and remodel the old weight room into a music space for the band and choir.

“The athletic field house could be used for wrestling and other extra-curricular activities,” Albisu said. “It could also be used by the community.”

“Our hope is that with improved facilities we can continue to be supportive to our students and families, as well as be a place that will draw more families to the area,” Albisu said. “I think as school district we work really hard on academic piece, too; and I hope the community recognizes that.”

The district will hold several community informational and question-and-answer meetings in April.

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