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Ashland breaks ground on schools renovation

It didn’t have the pomp and circumstance Ashland residents have come to expect when it comes to major milestones associated with publicly funded projects.

Still, the Ashland School District, along with builders and architects, held a COVID-19-safe groundbreaking ceremony Thursday at Ashland Middle School to celebrate the beginning of the construction phase of a renovation that will, among other things, move John Muir Outdoor School on site.

The shovels broke ground eight days after a similar celebration was held three miles to the north at Helman Elementary, which is undergoing a similar overhaul. The projects, which also include significant renovations at Walker Elementary and Ashland High School, are being funded by a $107.4 million bond voters approved in 2018 — that figure was bumped up to $129.2 million in May 2019 when the district asked for a premium on the bond at the sale.

The par amount of $107.4 million will be levied by Ashland residents and paid back by 2044 at a rate of $2 per $1,000 of assessed property value annually.

On Thursday, school board members, district employees with the middle school and John Muir, and representatives of Soderstrom Architects, Adroit Construction and HMK Company were on hand to celebrate the beginning of the construction phase that replace and rebuild AMS and John Muir at the current AMS site (it’ll take up three wings and 65,000 square feet), add a new campus security system, and improve air quality and climate resilience.

“It’s a really big deal, and it’s the fruition of a lot of years of work, building and planning and engagement with the community and the communities’ decision to make this happen for kids,” said Ashland superintendent Samuel Bogdanove, who attended the ceremony. “So to actually be there on the day when you get to turn over the dirt and start the projects is just tremendous.

“In a normal situation we would have had an opportunity for community members to join us and people to be there and join in the celebration, but because of COVID the best way that we can share that is through the video of the ceremony. And I hope that people take a chance to look at it because it really is a remarkable thing.”

The video of the AMS and John Muir groundbreaking will be posted on the district’s Facebook page soon, and links to the project overview, including a highly-detailed three-dimensional walkthrough schematic video, can be found on the district’s website. Already posted is the groundbreaking at Helman, where the massive renovation will include a new, secure classroom wing that’ll replace two class pods (a 23,000 square foot addition), upgraded campus-wide security, new technology infrastructure, a newly renovated quad and seismic upgrades.

Construction at Ashland High School and Walker Elementary won’t begin until next fall, according to Steve Mitzel, who is the district’s director of operations and serving as the bond program executive. Renovations at AMS, John Muir and Helman are expected to be completed by December 2021, while AHS and Walker aren’t expected to be completed until the summer of 2022.

Helman principal Michelle Cuddeback said she’s excited about the whole project, but is especially looking forward to the addition of a multi-purpose room and the space that will allow the school to run a site-based program for special needs students on campus.

“Currently at Helman we don’t have any extra space,” Cuddeback said. “We don’t have an art room, we don’t have a science room. Everything happens in the classroom, so if a teacher wants to set up a science experiment and they just had a math class, maybe they have recess or lunch in order to accommodate that need to set up a bunch of materials for science or art. Now the multi-purpose room will serve that purpose. It’ll house our kilns so ceramics can take place in there. The teachers can sign up and it can hold up to two classes at a time.”

Cuddeback added that the architects even figured out a way to preserve one of the school’s best features in a way that offered much more flexibility.

“We really wanted to preserve our view of Mt. Ashland and our connection to the outdoors as we have an outdoor campus,” she said, “and the wall of that multi-purpose space is completely operable, so it can be completely opened up to have a connection to the outdoor playground space. So you could have an indoor-outdoor activity happening there with lots of fresh air, lots of integration with the outdoors.”

The renovation at AMS also provided a chance opportunity to reminisce for at least one retired teacher. Marcia Hunter, who taught social studies and language arts before retiring in 2003, still remembers the day about 20 years ago when she was told that her chalk board would be covered with a new dry-erase board at the end of the school day. She had her students write messages on the chalk board that day, knowing they’d be preserved as a sort of two-dimensional time capsule.

When Hunter found out that the wall on which that chalk board was hung was about to come down, she called AMS principal Steve Retzlaff and asked if she could come take a look. He said of course, yes, and Hunter was thrilled to see the messages from her former students were still clear as the day they were etched.

“That was a great group,” she said. “I was reading all their names and feeling very nostalgic. The father of one of them is my physical therapist, the mother of another one is in my Y class. My son, Scott, knows some of them through sports. I don’t know, it’s just a small town.”

Mail Tribune education reporter Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Ashland School District employees take part in a groundbreaking ceremony Nov. 4 at Helman Elementary. (Photo courtesy of Encompassed Design)