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High school plan passes

The Medford School Board voted 4—3 Tuesday to move ahead with a $83 million project to build a new South Medford High School, a move that could put into jeopardy projects to renovate and reopen two elementary schools.

The decision drew angry and, in some cases, tearful responses from patrons who filled the cafeteria at South Medford High School, largely Jackson and Roosevelt supporters who want to see the elementary schools reopened.

"They've only had six people say they want a new South, and they've had over 100 people say they want Jackson and Roosevelt to reopen" during public comments in recent months, said Karri DeVos, a Roosevelt kindergarten teacher. "It would be nice if they listened to the public."

Last month, the board put a moratorium on construction planning for the new South Medford, renovation of the existing high school and remodels of Jackson and Roosevelt until it decided how to balance its bond budget. The bond package is nearly $27 million in the red because of escalating construction costs and unforeseen work to complete some of 18 school projects.

Among the unexpected work were additional asbestos removal at Washington Elementary School and more extensive renovations at Jackson and Roosevelt because of unsafe structural conditions.

The structural problems prompted engineers to call for the emergency closure of the two schools last June.

Board Member Larry Nicholson moved Tuesday to resume construction planning for the new high school, slated for the intersection of Columbus and Cunningham avenues.

Facilities director Mark Button reported that each month of delay accounts for about $500,000 of inflation on the South Medford new construction project.

Nicholson argued that waiting to proceed on the project could mean it becomes price-prohibitive.

He suggested calling two town hall meetings in December and January to find out if the community would rather reopen Jackson and Roosevelt or create a third middle school out of the existing South Medford High School. The latter option would allow the district to establish grades 6-8 middle schools instead of the existing grades 7-8 configuration.

The first town hall meeting is set for 6:30 p.m. Dec. 18 at Washington Elementary School, 610 S. Peach St.

Board members Tricia Prendergast, Robin Stroh and Mike Moran voted in favor of Nicholson's proposal. Board members Brian Penland, Eric Dziura and Kevin Christiansen dissented. Penland said building South would likely preclude renovating and reopening at least one of the elementary schools.

Jackson and Roosevelt will cost $13.3 million each to renovate, totaling $26.6 million. Renovating the existing South Medford into a middle school will cost about $15.5 million.

There is only about $23 million available for the three projects.

Nicholson said it may be possible to scale down the Jackson and Roosevelt designs to fit the $23 million budget.

"I don't feel a vote to build South precludes building Jackson and Roosevelt," Prendergast added.

Supporters of Jackson and Roosevelt who held up yellow signs with "Give Us Back Our Schools," said the schools are critical to their neighborhoods' sense of community and involvement in their children's education. Students can walk to both schools, and Jackson provides multiple social services for its low-income community.

Since Jackson was shuttered and students bussed to the West Side School and McLoughlin Middle School, participation in Kids Unlimited, an after-school program that provides homework help and fun activities, has plummeted from more than 60 Jackson pupils to three, said Jackson PTO member Kathy Greagor.

"I don't think the board understands how poor Jackson families are," said Greagor, who wept when she heard the board's decision. "Jackson is their hope and their chance to make to a flagship high school.

"I knew this decision was coming, but I won't shut up until Jackson is reopened."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.

Roosevelt kindergarten teacher Karri Devos reacts during discussion about moving forward with building a new high school. - Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch