Roosevelt high School (photo by Matthew Ginn)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
Last November, voters approved a $482 million school construction bond for Portland Public Schools by a two thirds majority.
The bond will fully renovate three high schools - Grant, Roosevelt and Franklin - while replacing Faubion School (which serves Pre-K through 8th graders), strengthening several other schools against earthquakes, and repaying previous loans that funded 9 roof replacements, 47 boiler conversions, and construction of the Rosa Parks School. The bond will additionally increase access to schools for students, teachers and visitors with disabilities and upgrade science classrooms at middle grade schools.
Although the $482 million will do much to address ongoing physical needs at these schools, neither their upkeep nor funding will ever be complete. The average age of PPS schools is more than 65 years old. More than half of PPS schools were built in the 1940s or earlier. What's more, the district's funding structure means PPS must continually go to voters hat-in-hand for funding in a manner that means they are always fighting from behind to keep up with deferred maintenance.
In anticipation of a continuing-education symposium on June 7 at the Portland chapter of the American Institute of Architects called "Seismic Resiliency in our Schools" (which unfortunately uses the non-word "resiliency" rather than "resilience"), I spoke with one of its organizers, writer Ted Wolf, co-founder of Oregon Parents for Quake Resistant Schools.
Portland Architecture: Why do you think last fall's $482 million bond was successful with voters while other past bond measures have failed? Did we become less cheap-skates or was it a better bond?
Wolf: First it was a school bond proposal that put earthquake safety as a priority. Voters embraced that priority.
The second is in the specifics of the program actually proposed they did some very significant things. The school bond selects four schools for complete rebuilding or modernization: Franklin, Grant and Roosevelt are three of the oldest complexes in the district, approaching 100 years old. They also have significant amounts of unreinforced masonry (URM) in their system. They are three big buildings with big potential liability. They’re not the only three URM schools in the district, but the district is touching more than 50 percent of the enrolment in their unreinforced masonry schools I don’t know of any school district anywhere that’s made such a smart choice about the schools they selected.
The fourth was Faubion, a K-8 school in the Concordia neighborhood. It’s going to be rebuilt as a partnership with Concordia University. Faubion is in this really crappy building. It was built to take on an overflow of students after the Vanport flood. It was supposed to be a temporary school. So Faubion will be rebuilt from the ground up.
Also, it is worth mentioning that the bond also directs significant investment, on the order of $70+ million, to seismic upgrades and re-roofing projects that will be performed at dozens of Portland schools in summer projects over the next 8 years -- beginning this summer with a seismic retrofit project at historic Alameda Elementary School. Those smaller projects also make a considerable contribution to the seismic resilience of the district as a whole, and to the safety of schoolchildren and teachers.
There's been talk of Vernonia's new school serving as an example; even though it's designed to resist floods rather than earthquakes, the thinking behind it seems innovative. What are some successful school designs in our metro area?
I think the experience of Vernonia is going to be carefully considered. Other high schools like Sandy are considered state of the art. There are ones in the Vancouver district. And school architects are very attuned to those projects.
Franklin High School (photo by Matthew Ginn)
Particularly with the recent tornado in Oklahoma, there has been increasing talk of how schools can serve as community resources and shelters in times of emergency. Could future bonds address this?
That’s challenging because it’s expensive to incorporate into schools. The pro-forma that guides that is life safety. A school building is usually designed so it can withstand disaster without posing threat to the building occupants: so people can leave the building safely before it collapses. But to go to a higher level of performance, what's called immediate occupancy, that people need to go back right into and use, that’s a lot more engineering and expense. People are generous to schools, but usually not that generous. If it’s going to be a shelter, there may need to be additional funds for that beyond school bonds. Just building a school to 2013 standards is not enough to deliver what people expect in terms of that community safety.
How does the June 7 symposium fit into the conversation?
It’s a bookend in a way. In 2011, not long after a previous school bond failed, AIA/Portland held a symposium called Preparing For Seismic Certainty. They asked a lot of profound questions of design and the future of old buildings. PPS had a good contingent of facilities staff who attended that and participated. With this event now, this bond is in place and the plan is rolled out and we’ll begin this summer. It’s an interesting thing for the design community to look at this from a position of strength. We have new resources available. How will that affect the future of the school district? We’re getting down to brass tacks, and that’s exciting and instructive. And they’re incorporating a lot of design experience from Seattle and projects elsewhere.