Giant bond puts Salem-Keizer facelift in motion

Special Reports

Here's a look at some of the improvements

SALEM, Ore. (KOIN) — Crews are hammering away at construction projects in the Salem-Keizer School District, about a month before students return to class. The work is funded by the $619.7 million bond approved by voters in 2018, the third largest K-12 bond in Oregon history.

Salem-Keizer is Oregon’s second largest school district, and has more than 42,000 students.

In all, 60 schools are set to get a piece of the bond pie. Thirty one will get capital construction projects, meaning significant renovations or expansions. So far, just five have started construction: Gubser Elementary School, Judson Middle School, Waldo Middle School, McNary High School and North Salem High School. KOIN 6 went to check out the progress at three of them.

North Salem High School

North Salem High School is the oldest high school in the whole district. Built in 1936, it’s been struggling with overcrowding for a while. In the past, 10 portable classrooms were added to address the problem. When construction ends in 2020, North Salem High School will have a capacity of 2,200 students.

“It’s gonna give us a breath of fresh air,” principal Sara LeRoy said.

Crews are building 20 new general classes, a new science lab, CTE program spaces, replacement physical education spaces, and more. They’re also working on roofing replacement, elevator replacement and seismic improvements. There will be a new entrance in the back of the school that will primarily serve as a gateway to the athletics complex.

The whole project is budgeted for $73.5 million.

McNary High School

Improvements to McNary High School are budgeted at $55.9 million, including bond funds and grants. The school was originally built in 1964 to serve about 1,700 students, according to district officials. Construction should relieve current overcrowding and allow for future growth up to 2,200 students.

It’s a huge undertaking. Crews are building 14 new general classrooms, a new science lab, and more special education classrooms. Career technical education (CTE) is also a huge focus, with expanded automotive, culinary, digital media and residential construction program spaces in the works.

“When kids have an involvement with CTE, about 93% of the time they graduate on time,” principal Erik Jespersen said. “These are great skills for kids to have. Good professional skills that will help them for college or for a career. So we’re very excited about this and it’s extremely important.”

They’re also expanding parking (they used eminent domain to get land from a neighboring church), relocating the softball fields and tennis courts and expanding administration areas. Plus there are seismic improvements, plumbing improvements and an upgrade for the intercom system.

Construction isn’t scheduled to wrap up until September 2020, so that means many students will be in portable classrooms this year.

Gubser Elementary School

Gubser Elementary School in Keizer, a single-story school, was designed for 467 students back in 1976. Right now, enrollment is around 592. The $5.5 million bond project includes adding three classrooms, removing portable classrooms and, most excitingly, a new cafeteria and kitchen.

“In the past they used a classroom sort of area, but it just wasn’t big enough to meet the needs of the students or be able to feed all of the students,” principal Tom Charboneau said. “So pretty much a cafeteria where all of the students can eat together is new to Gubser Elementary School.

They’re also improving the HVAC system, gymnasium, and the electronic badge access system.

The renovations at Gubser went fast: Crews started work in March and are scheduled to wrap up before students return to school in September.

This is how the approximately $619.7 million bond is being split up. Adding physical space to schools takes up the vast majority of the money.

Following the money

Of course, none of these improvements would be happening without the bond. It increases local property taxes by an estimated $1.24 per $1,000 of assessed property value.

According to the district, that means a house with an assessed value of $200,000 will pay about an extra $248 each year until the bond expires in about two decades.

In West Salem, average yearly taxes for increased from $3,613 in 2017 to $4,009 for 2018, according to the Polk County Assessor’s Office. They will increase again for 2019 due to increasing property values and the various bonds residents are paying for.

District officials have also been able to increase the approved program closer to $667 million, according to Chief Operations Officer Mike Wolfe. According to Wolfe, investments, market premiums, earnings and grants all added to the funds.

“Conditions were really favorable to go out into the market with municipal bonds,” he said.

At the end of the day, though, all the principals and school district representatives wanted to thank the taxpayers.

“We could not do this work for our kids if we did not have the support from the Keizer and Salem community,” Jespersen said.

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