Malheur County school district aims to use bond to renovate aging buildings

An array of infrastructure improvements at the Ontario School District will be possible if voters approve a $25 million bond in May. (The Enterprise/File).

ONTARIO – At Ontario High School, windows nearly 70 years old need constant attention.

At Aiken Elementary School, part of a stage has been turned into a classroom.

At May Roberts Elementary School, students sometimes dash across a busy city street to meet parents.

Voters are being asked in May to fix those problems. The Ontario School District wants a $25 million school bond to upgrade schools that outdated and aging. Ontario voters last funded school building improvements in 2010, and a bond measure failed two years ago.

“One of the biggest challenge our district faces is that of our aging facilities,” Superintendent Nicole Albisu said. “We’re constantly working on keeping our facilities warm safe and dry and operational. We never get to really have the opportunities to save for new builds.”

Albisu said citizens touring Ontario High School, Alameda Elementary and Aiken Elementary commented on how the exterior of the buildings could be deceiving.

“People say they wouldn’t realize what is really inside, how cramped we are for spaces and how we’re using facilities that were built way back in the 40s, 50s or 60s and how we’re trying to kind of retrofit what we do today into those kind of atmospheres,” Albisu said.

Last summer, the district’s citizen-led Facilities Task Force surveyed voting households in the Ontario School District.

The three items on the survey that received the most support included classroom window upgrade and energy improvements at the high school, exterior improvements to the main high school building and the addition of a sixth-grade classroom at the middle school campus.

Albisu explained that the district has to use its general fund to maintain buildings.

The bond, she said, would cut down those ongoing costs.

The Enterprise recently toured Aiken Elementary with Mary Jo Evers, the district’s finance director, as well as Ontario High School, Alameda Elementary and May Roberts with Bob Bennett, the district’s facilities manager, for a first-hand look at what improvements district officials say are necessary.

During the tour, Bennett said the projects in the bond proposal would mean more money for maintenance projects. At the same time, he cautioned that the school bond is not meant to be spent on maintenance emergency repairs and routine projects.

“We’re trying to keep a separate distinction between maintenance and new facilities,” Bennett said.

“We want to be able to take the money that would be spent to do a remodel and keep it so we can do those maintenance projects,” Bennett said. “The bonds are huge. They’re the only way we can get new and updated facilities.”

Bennett added that many of the improvements would save the district money in the future.

For example, asbestos abatement would be needed while doing upgrades at the high school.

Replacing windows at the high school means the district could avoid constant quick fixes using sealants and foam backer rods, which are “all getting to the point where they’re crumbling or deteriorating,” according to Bennett.

The high school was built in 1952 with the addition of the gymnasium in 1964. When the district passed an $18.5 million school bond in 2010, it only covered about 20 percent of the remodeling and replacement needs in district’s the long-range facilities plan. It was also the district’s first bond to pass in more than 30 years.

Energy efficiency at the high school is a major issue, Bennett said. Most of the windows date to when the school was built, and no major renovations have occurred in those classrooms in the last 67 years. Upgrading the windows and walls that hold them would cost over $1 million dollars but provide energy savings.

In addition, the high school’s athletic locker rooms aren’t accessible to students with disabilities, according to Bennett.

“See these stairs? This could be a problem,” Bennett said, pointing to the short stairway that led into the girls’ locker rooms on the west side of the gym. “These locker rooms are where visiting teams stay. Let’s say a person on that team was injured or couldn’t walk? It’d be hard for them to use these stairs.”

The high school also would secure a single point of entry, which district officials say is a best practice for safety and security. The school has several entrances, and the de facto main entrance can’t be seen from any of the administrative offices.

And as far as day-to-day education, students and teachers see their buildings at Alameda and Aiken as too outdated and cramped for the changing needs of education, Albisu said.

With bond money, the district would update Aiken’s classrooms, technology, and student common areas such as a main hallway connecting different areas of the school. As with any renovation, federal law requires all updated buildings meet current fire, health, and disability accessibility standards.

Aiken has exceeded classroom capacity. A computer lab was the last available space to convert to a place for students to eat lunch once the cafeteria met itss maximum capacity, and half of a stage was converted into a classroom. This problem is compounded by a lack of collaborative learning spaces and entry control.

The bond would pay for additional classrooms, an entry vestibule with office and a hallway connecting all sections of the school.

At Alameda, the bond would remodel the administrative office area, which contains the building’s main office space. It would also add an enclosed foyer at the entrance, where visitors can check in during school hours.

Surrounded by Tupperware containers full of school and office supplies, administrative desks, mailboxes and filing cabinets, a sick boy lying on a cot in the middle of the office area looks down into the trash bin next to his face. School employees pace back and forth across the room to retrieve items or to copy documents at the copy machine nearby.

With bond funds, the school would get a sick room and its own restroom so that “a sick kid could be sick,” Bennett said.

The bond would also add additional classrooms at Alameda, Bennett said as he walked to another end of the school. He opens a door to reveal a hallway partially blocked with gray panels.

“All of this right here – these are needing extra help with reading, math, whatever,” Bennet said among the chatter of students in the midst of a lesson.

Meanwhile, a relatively new maintenance employee walks past the section of open classrooms.

“He just walks by there, and guess who all the students are looking at? They’re watching him walk by, seeing what he’s doing,” Bennet said. “This is a real distraction. By getting them their own space, they can focus on learning without getting distracted.”

Bennett said another issue is that the hallway “is considered a corridor and is supposed to be kept as a corridor per fire code.”

“We should be able to move 300 kids here as fast as possible,” Bennett said, gesturing at the corridor. “If we have these temporary partitions in the way, they become tripping hazards and obstructions in trying to get the building empty as quickly as possible.”

The bond issue would also solve student safety, traffic, and parking issues at May Roberts Elementary.

The school’s drop off and pickup area would be improved so students wouldn’t have to cross Northwest 8th Street to meet parents.

Although Pioneer Elementary, built in 1904, is listed as the district’s oldest school, the bond proposal doesn’t list projects for that campus.

That’s because the district invested in Pioneer with the 2010 bond.

“We feel like we’re in good standing with Pioneer,” Albisu said. “I feel like we’re pretty safe with how it is, and we work to stay on top of its maintenance schedule.”

Albisu emphasized that most of the school buildings within the district could always use more work and improvements.

“From the last bond, we put money into all of the buildings to make them warm, safe and dry, including at Pioneer,” Albisu said. “We did have to prioritize our projects this time. The Facilities Task Force felt like these other priorities were more important. I mean we have a big, long list of things that we would want to do still, if we had more money.”

District officials say they’ve received little pushback on the bond proposal so far, with only a few opponents.

“I feel like there’s been really, really good support,” said Taryn Smith, the district’s public information officer. She added that the bond issue has been “very well received and people are invested enough to ask questions,” which she believes is a positive sign.

“They’re opening that gate of interest, and so they’re being open minded,” Smith said.

Albisu stressed that the district’s schools are its most important asset and said the community has responded positively to the proposals.

“We want to draw people to the area, and I think that’s another really big strong argument for this bond,” said Albisu. “We want attractive buildings because attractive spaces attract teachers. It also attracts people to the area, which in turn, attracts businesses. It allows for people to take pride, and for kids to take pride in their schools and their communities.”

Have a news tip? Reporter Kristine de Leon: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.

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