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‘Important to get this right’

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Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Superintendent Bret Champion talks to members of the media about new zoning changes for the Medford School District at the site of Oakdale Middle School in Medford on Monday.
Oakdale Middle School is a work in progress; so, too, is defining which students will attend classes there

Walk through the building at 815 S. Oakdale Avenue, which has been home to numerous high schools in the Medford School District over the last several decades, and you’ll see that it’s just a shell of its former self.

Wood frames, drywall, concrete and dirt are showing as crews complete seismic upgrades to the facility, but when the project is complete, it will open in the fall of 2023 as Oakdale Middle School.

“We are so proud of the work that is going on here at Oakdale,” said Superintendent Bret Champion during a press conference at the school on Monday, ahead of a school board public hearing at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, May 19, to discuss which students will attend the district’s third middle school. “We are coming toward the end of a long and arduous zoning process.

He was referring to a process that has not been seriously considered since 1996. In the case of Oakdale — named for the historic district in which it resides — a committee worked for months to take the existing “attendance zone” boundaries of the two other middle schools, Hedrick and McLoughlin, and redraw them to include Oakdale.

That work produced four scenarios, which the public were able to view and provide feedback on during several “gallery walks” held last month.

Now that the committee has taken community feedback and produced for the school board a sole attendance zoning recommendation, it, too, is up for public feedback —which will be heard at the hearing on Thursday.

“We are all super excited as a board to have the public comment section because that allows us to hear from parents and families,” Board Chair Suzanne Messer said during the Monday press conference. “We’re still taking the input because it’s important to us to get this right.”

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Ron Havniear. Director of Facilities, provides a tour of the renovations in progress at the site of Oakdale Middle School in Medford on Monday.

The conversation concerning middle school attendance zoning came about after the district realized elementary school teaching spaces were at capacity, which would mean grade levels would need to change, capping the lower-tier schools at the fifth grade. That would mean a 6-8 middle school model and thus, a third Medford middle school was needed.

“That probably buys us up to 10 years before we actually have to build another elementary school,” said Brad Earl, assistant superintendent of operations. “And then, that would be the time we might re-address attendance boundaries even at the middle school or high school (levels).”

Approval process

With Hedrick currently housing 1,306 students to McLoughlin’s 1,298, the new attendance zoning scenario, if approved, would shrink Hedrick’s population to 858 students, while 889 would go to McLoughlin. Meanwhile, 857 students would go to Oakdale.

But that is just a snippet of how Oakdale being added would change the Medford School District landscape. Officials have provided full details of the proposal and an “frequently asked questions” page for constituents at medford.k12.or.us/.

Messer said ever since the committee presented its recommendation on May 5, board members have received numerous constituent emails, which will all be reviewed in advance of Thursday’s public hearing.

“We received several different emails both ‘for’ (the recommendation) and a couple changes from different families saying what they’d like to see different, including asking, ‘how did we go from the top four contenders to this one, which was not at the gallery walk,’” the chairwoman said. “We’ll go into that a lot more on Thursday and all of the emails at that time — they’ll be part of the record.”

The board isn’t expected to formally approve the new attendance zone boundaries until June 2, but even before then, the lines could change based on feedback the board receives this week.

“The board has the final say in all of this; if public feedback comes in, then we can make new decisions based on what we’re hearing,” Messer said.

She added that any changes would “not be a surprise” to the public and shown to them in advance of any decision made by the board.

But board members also have the authority to approve the committee’s recommendation exactly the way it was presented on May 5, Messer said.

Finishing Oakdale

Taking the lead on the media’s tour of Oakdale was Ron Havniear, the district’s director of facilities and leadership development.

He noted the building’s storied history, which began in 1931 as Medford High School and would eventually cease teaching operations in 2020, when it was then Central Medford High School. The Oakdale building actually housed district administrative offices before they moved to their current home on Biddle Road.

It is for the building’s longevity that seismic upgrades were part of the conversation to transform the property into Oakdale Middle School.

“I wouldn’t say it was (in) imminent safety failure phase,” Havinear said. “We could bring kids back into the building and still be fine, but when we have the opportunity to upgrade it, we should certainly do what we can.”

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Renovations are underway at the site of the Oakdale Middle School in Medford on Monday. In making improvements to the school’s auditorium, they also found a decades-old wallet an Oregon woman lost when she taught at the school.

Doing what they can seismically to the building has involved a few surprises along the way. Crews have found old photos and notes behind lockers. In making improvements to the school’s auditorium, they also found a decades-old wallet an Oregon woman lost when she taught at the school.

“I think what’s inspiring for us is the ability and the opportunity to be able to merge the past with the future,” Havinear said. “Everyone takes satisfaction in being able to do that.”

Ashland-based Adroit Construction Co. is involved in the Oakdale project, and so is Christopher Brown, with arkitek:design&architecture.

The Oakdale building is 180,000 square feet, a little bigger than Hedrick and McLoughin. While officials noted each middle school will still get roughly the same amount of students in 2023, Havniear added not all of Oakdale’s space will be dedicated to teaching. It will include “district-level assets,” including office space.

Oakdale MS will have 49 rooms — 45 dedicated to classrooms, Havinear said. It will have the traditional spaces one would expect in a middle school -- media center, auditorium, cafeteria and gym. However, the building, once complete, will not be “state-of-the art.”

“When you come back, you might think, ‘What happened?’ It will look relatively the same,” compared to its high school days, Havinear said. “People can be triggered by ‘state-of-the-art’ and we wanted to make sure that … we didn’t create one school that was largely better than the other. I feel like it’s pretty comparable to what you’re going to see at McLoughlin and Hedrick.”

Construction on Oakdale started before the pandemic, but was delayed because of it – and that is what pushed back Oakdale’s opening by a year, according to Havinear.

By the fall of 2020, however, district officials decided they could go ahead and complete the project’s first phase, which included an expanded parking lot, a new play surface and relocating the field.

The second phase includes seismic upgrades. This phase will extend into next summer, according to Havniear, because crews will need to look for good “weather windows” to work on certain aspects of the project.

But the extension of phase two won’t impede the beginning of phase three, he said. That includes demolition of the interior of the building.

The third phase includes a “large scale demotion” of the interior for preparation and asbestos abatement in select areas.

“Once complete with the demolition and the structural upgrades, we will move toward putting it all back together and doing the finish work,” Havinear wrote in an email, noting the HVAC and plumbing will also be improved during the third phase.

Near the end of April, 2023, the project will be complete, giving staff members time to rehearse during the summer to prepare for the new school year — something Messer stressed the importance of during Monday’s news conference.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Renovations are underway at the site of the Oakdale Middle School in Medford on Monday.

Havinear, who visits the Oakdale site frequently, envisioned how happy everyone will be to occupy Oakdale Middle School.

“You hear Dr. Champion talk about how ‘students are our center of gravity’ — it’s the same here on the construction side. It’s not about the building, honestly. It’s about the people who use those buildings, the students and the staff, ” Havinear said. “What can they do with regard to education in these buildings? We constantly look at it through that lens.”

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.