An appeal to wait
A group of concerned citizens is demanding Medford school officials put the brakes on bond-financed building projects until they grapple with spiraling construction costs.
"We're calling on the school board to halt whatever decision-making process it's going through," said George Kramer, spokesman for a group that accuses school officials of ignoring public concerns.
Kramer, who held a press conference with nearly 40 other community members in Medford on Monday, said he fears the school board may take a position as early as tonight that could affect Jackson or Roosevelt elementary schools or the proposed new high school without adequate public involvement.
"The thing that is pulling everybody together is the lack of frankness and transparency or discussion about the issue," said Kramer. "A year ago the citizens of Medford gave this school district their faith and $189 million."
The school board will meet at 6:30 tonight at South Medford High School to discuss the voter-approved projects, for which costs have risen to at least $27 million over budget. Some of the options to cut costs include shelving a new high school or not replacing Jackson or Roosevelt elementary schools, which were closed in June after engineers determined the buildings were unsafe.
School board members will be considering whether to push forward with the new high school before inflationary pressures push costs up further.
School board members Larry Nicholson and Chairman Mike Moran attended the press conference to listen to the group's concerns. Nicholson said afterward that if the high school project can be capped at $83 million, that should leave about $23 million that could be used for scaled-down versions of Jackson and Roosevelt, with possibly enough left for some remodeling at what is now South Medford High School.
Nicholson said approving a new high school, which, he added, is not necessarily a certainty, will not kill the option of rebuilding the two elementary schools.
"We feel we can accommodate what the community wants," he said.
Nicholson and Moran said they want to hold town hall-type meetings in the near future to gauge public opinion about having sixth through eighth grades in middle school rather than the current seventh-and-eighth-grade configuration.
Nicholson said he understands the frustration residents have with the district's explanations, but he said, "We've really bent over backwards to be open."
Resident Katie Tso, who attended the rally, said the district might argue that it has involved the public, but she and other community members disagree.
"It's not a dialogue — it's a monologue," she said.
Tso said she wouldn't rule out asking voters to recall school board members at some point, but she'd prefer to wait until after the district makes a decision about how it will proceed.
If the district mishandles the money and disillusions the public, Tso said it will affect other communities' efforts to pass bond measures in the future.
Moran said the district has received many public comments through the Internet, by phone and at school board meetings. He said there is no hidden agenda or any secret effort to permanently close Jackson or Roosevelt schools.
"Our original dollar amounts (for the projects) have increased, and that's where our biggest problem is," he said.
Moran said the district failed to get an accurate read on the costs of the project, but the structural problems at the two elementary schools were unknown when the district asked voters to approve the bond measure.
Moran said he sees all sides of the debate, such as those who want to keep the elementary schools open and those who want a new high school, both of which were promised to voters.
Moran said he expects some kind of decision, even though it might not be one that will make everyone happy.
"The longer we delay — pretty soon inflation will be making decisions for us," he said.
Tso said the district could find itself in even worse shape if it doesn't fully analyze the situation.
"If they continue on the path they're on, they're going to run out of money," she said.
Tso said the district failed when it decided to hire a Portland architect to oversee the projects rather than someone local who would have more at stake if costs went up.
"There is a lack of accountability," she said.
Moran said the district has received bids and proposals from outside firms and is fully confident it has picked the right companies.
Kramer, an Ashland historian, first became interested in the Medford school district's problems after it was announced the bricks were deteriorating at Jackson and Roosevelt.
While he thinks the buildings could be preserved cost effectively, he said the issue has gone beyond bricks.
He said the school board cannot continue to leave the public out of its decisions.
"We are exploring our legal alternatives with counsel if the board continues to ignore these growing concerns," he said.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or email@example.com.