News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Voters asked to support new elementary school

If Sisters-area voters approve Measure 9-141 on the May 18 ballot, there will be a new Sisters Elementary School in a new location in 2023.

A 2001 bond that was used to build Sisters High School is “retiring,” which means that if the levy is passed the tax rate of 93 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value would simply continue, allowing the creation of a $33.8-million fund for construction of the new school. Construction of the school is the primary focus of the endeavor, but any funds left over could be allocated to renovations and upgrades on other district property.

Several elements have made the bond levy a priority now: The “sunset” of the high school bond allows the district to seek the funding without a felt increase in taxes; interest rates remain at historic lows — but most of all there is a pressing need, according to district officials.

“I think the biggest driving factor of ‘now’ is the current and projected elementary school enrollment … and the timeline,” said school board chair Jay Wilkins.

The earliest a new school could be build is in two years — and the elementary school is already at 106 percent of capacity, with a projection of hitting 111 percent capacity next year. The district moved the fifth grade to Sisters Middle School many years ago to alleviate crowding. A new facility would allow the fifth grade to return to the elementary school environment and also free up additional capacity at Sisters Middle School.

Schools Superintendent Curt Scholl told The Nugget that the Sisters School District (SSD) has made a commitment to patrons to maintain low class sizes — an average of 22-1 student teacher ratio in the elementary school. He said the district is bumping against that ratio now at 20.1- 1 in some cases and 21.1 in others — with enrollment expected to climb.

“Four classrooms per grade level is what we believe we are going to need to grow into,” he said.

Proponents of the levy report that there is no “dedicated space for individualized and small-group instruction and remediation: students are learning in hallways, converted closets, on the cafeteria stage, and inadequately divided spaces.”

While SSD takes some pride in the way it’s handled having the fifth grades at Sisters Middle School, it is not necessarily the most desirable educational model. Scholl notes that curriculum is traditionally designed for K-5.

“There’s a natural break,” he said. “This would get us to a true middle school model.”

He said there is more efficiency in running a K-5 elementary school and a 6-8 middle school.

The elementary school would be built in proximity to the middle school and high school on a shared campus. That has educational and operational advantages, Scholl said.

“In schools that have consolidated campuses, we do see a lot of mentoring,” he said.

The three schools would be more able to share staff resources.

“Proximity helps a lot,” he said.

Scholl said that there probably wouldn’t be much cost savings in transportation due to consolidation — but a shared campus would reduce the time students are waiting for a bus or sitting on a bus.

District officials are keeping a close eye on skyrocketing construction costs. It’s hard to predict what those will be like when actual building gets underway, but both Wilkins and Scholl believe there is sufficient funding through the bond levy to complete the project to desired standards. Costs may preclude additional projects, but the district has already committed to the elementary school as its priority.

The project will be conducted on a design-build model that will have a fixed “not to exceed” cost attached to it to avoid overruns.

Wilkins said that the district will once again employ a bond-oversight committee, which he believes served the taxpayers well in 2016 in ensuring delivery on promises and transparency in where and how funds were spent. He noted that there is significant interest in a bond-oversight committee already, including what he described as “highly capable people.”

What will be done with the current SES site has yet to be determined, Wilkins said.

A community-wide process will be established to make that determination.

“It’s a really important asset for the community, so we need community engagement to determine the best use of that building,” Wilkins said.

The board chair said that board and district believe the project is both necessary and prudent.

“I’ve yet to meet anyone who likes paying taxes,” he said. “But this is a good investment.”

Ballots were to be mailed to registered voters starting April 28.

Author Bio

Jim Cornelius, Editor in Chief

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Jim Cornelius is editor in chief of The Nugget and author of “Warriors of the Wildlands: True Tales of the Frontier Partisans.” A history buff, he explores frontier history across three centuries and several continents on his podcast, The Frontier Partisans. For more information visit www.frontierpartisans.com.

 

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