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Medford district to build third middle school

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Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneNew courts have been built at the Medford school property on Oakdale that was Central High School and will become a new middle school.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneNatalie Hurd walks through the halls of the Medford school property on Oakdale that was Central High School and will become a new middle school.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneRooms under construction at the Medford school property on Oakdale that was Central High School and will become a new middle school.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneNatalie Hurd in the sports history area of the Medford school property on Oakdale that was Central High School and will become a new middle school.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneNatalie Hurd in the entrance of the Medford school property on Oakdale that was Central High School and will become a new middle school.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneThe Medford school property on Oakdale is being clean out to convert into a new middle school.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneNew parking lot built on the Oakdale Medford school property.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneThe Medford school property on Oakdale that was Central High School will become a new middle school.
Board approves estimated $30M move; school to open in 2023

The 252,000-square-foot building on South Oakdale Avenue formerly known as Central Medford High School — and before that South Medford High School — will be converted into Medford’s third middle school and open its doors in time for the 2023-24 school year.

The Medford school board voted unanimously during its last meeting to give the district the green light to “take all steps necessary” to finance and renovate the building at 815 S. Oakdale Ave., paving the way for an estimated $30 million project which will allow Medford School District to place every sixth- through eighth-grader into a middle school and, according to the district, delay by at least 10 years the need for another elementary school.

Currently, there are 1,089 sixth-graders in the district who do not attend charter schools, and only 245 of those attend either McLoughlin Middle School, Hedrick Middle School or Ruch Outdoor Community School, a K-8 institution. The rest are squeezed into 12 of the district’s 13 elementary schools — every sixth-grader in the Oak Grove Elementary zone attends a middle school — or are enrolled in the Medford Online Academy.

The board approved the latest, most significant step in the project during its March 18 meeting. Superintendent Bret Champion announced it via a district-wide email Thursday, and Ashland-based Adroit Construction Company will break ground in June.

In his message to district employees, Champion indicated that renovating what is commonly referred to as the Oakdale property is an example of the district following the advice it received from the Facilities Optimization Committee, which was tasked with tackling the district’s overcrowding dilemma, among other issues, in 2019.

“(The FOC) asked the district to utilize all existing space prior to asking taxpayers for additional funds for new construction,” read Champion’s email.

Champion added that the school board “continues to listen to community voices by entrusting us to move forward with financing options for this project outside of taxpayer dollars. The project will be funded through Full, Faith & Credit Obligations or federal COVID funds, or a combination of the two.”

The impact on the general fund budget will be about $1.65 million per year, but according to Brad Earl, the district’s assistant superintendent of operations, that’s preferable to asking voters to approve a bond, an endeavor that’s proven perilous here. In 2018, Medford voted down Measure 15-175, which sought $25 million to fund new MSD spaces for existing plumbing and electrical programs, as well as new carpentry and heating, ventilation and air conditioning programs.

“Most school districts outside the Willamette Valley struggle to get bonds passed,” Earl said. “They happen — Ashland got one, Phoenix-Talent got one, Eagle Point has had some success. It’s not impossible, but it’s pretty tight to get a bond election won. … And then with what’s currently going on in the economy, we just don’t think it’s a good time to ask taxpayers to foot the bill.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean the district won’t go that route a few years down the road – it will likely be a 25-year loan with an interest rate near 2% – in order to get the debt off its books early.

“We’ll try to structure it so it has call provisions in it that give flexibility for a future board to pay it off with a general obligation bond,” Earl said.

An influx of funds from the Student Investment Account and the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, which was part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, are also expected to indirectly help the district pay for the renovation.

While addressing the board just before its vote, Earl sounded confident that some of the cost of the project would be offset by incoming relief funds.

“It will have an impact on the general fund if we borrow that much and put that on the general fund,” he said, “but as I mentioned, I’m just not that nervous about it because we have just unprecedented amounts of funds that are coming our way and I’m sure we can make those things balance over the next few years. It’s the right thing to do for kids.”

Earl said that the renovation will save the district big in the long run because it will provide 45 to 50 classrooms in a building that will then be usable for another 50 years. And while the building itself is large – in fact, it’s only 3,000 square feet smaller than the new South Medford High building – it occupies only 19 acres of property. That’s too small for a high school, which requires much more space for parking and sports facilities. But for a middle school, Earl said, it will work just fine.

Once completed, approximately 850 to 900 students will attend the school, the vast majority of those in ground-level classrooms. There will also be room for other programs, Earl added.

“We’ve talked about having part of our training facilities here and meeting space,” he said. “We’ve talked about maybe some other alternative programs that exist within the Medford School District having a home here that have yet to be identified. The district office could come back and co-locate at the middle school, frankly. That was our original plan, but then we thought that we would be a distraction to the middle school and probably vice versa.”

Currently, the future middle school houses a little less than 100 district staffers, including Champion and Earl, in addition to a YMCA day care and two classes from the Phoenix-Talent School District that were displaced by the Almeda fire, Earl said.

Central Medford High and its roughly 100 students moved into the former Grace Christian Elementary building at 650 Royal Ave., at the beginning of the school year.

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