Questions linger about schools' closure

Questions linger about schools' closure

Ninety-six years ago, Jackson and Roosevelt elementary schools made their debut as the latest in school construction: nonflammable, durable brick instead of wood.

The brick, now believed to be defective the moment it was crafted, has made the schools dangerous to use, according to an engineering study in June commissioned by the Medford School District.

Portland-based DCI Engineers Inc. has recommended that the oldest portions of the schools, constructed in 1910 and 1911, be razed because of crumbling brick throughout the structures.

Jackson and Roosevelt students have been dispersed to four other schools while a district task force examines what should be done with the campuses, which are competing with limited funding from a $189 million bond package voters approved in November.

But some district residents and a local historian have called for a second opinion before the task force moves forward to see whether the historic structures can be saved and restored to again welcome students.

They said a separate engineering study might help quash speculation that the district closed the schools to slash operating expenses amid declining enrollment and cut costs from the bond package rather than protect children from crumbling brick.

In possible options for the bond package, a planning committee proposed closing Jackson and Roosevelt. But after a public outcry, it included $15 million to renovate the buildings in the bond measure.

"Even in the business world the appearance of a conflict of interest should be avoided," said Steve Plunk, father of a North Medford High School student. "The appearance is the district bought the vote with promises (to restore Jackson and Roosevelt) and now, they're going back to what they planned initially before the bond measure to close Roosevelt and Jackson."

Medford School Board members have emphatically said such speculations are false.

Board members Mike Moran and Tricia Prendergast have said they would like to preserve the schools because they realize their importance to surrounding neighborhoods.

They said they closed the schools to protect the lives of children and staff in any possible earthquake.

"In the face of the (DCI) report, I don't think we could have gone in another direction," said Medford schools Superintendent Phil Long. "It would have been irresponsible. Do you seek a second opinion, a third opinion or a fourth opinion?"

Local historian George Kramer, reputed for orchestrating the restoration of several dilapidated historic buildings in the area, has advised the district to obtain an engineering firm with expertise in preservation of old masonry buildings.

"You don't hire a gastroenterologist to do brain surgery," Kramer said. "You need to have a structural engineer with a specialty in unreinforced masonry."

Other buildings in Jackson County that were constructed with the same brick used at Jackson and Roosevelt have been restored and structurally enforced. The brick, used in downtown Medford, Jacksonville and Ashland, is considered defective because it was pressed rather than fired.

"If you think you want to save the buildings, you want to get the best information possible, and I don't think the district has done that," Kramer said.

But Long has indicated he doesn't plan to seek a second opinion on DCI's structural study.

He said both DCI and Portland-based Opsis Architecture, the firm hired to design renovations for both schools under a $189 million bond package, also have some experience working on historic buildings.

"We are very confident in the engineering firm we have," Long said. "They've assessed all of our bond projects."

Kramer said preserving the buildings would cost less than replacing the structures with new schools.

He pointed to Porters restaurant, near the railroad tracks in Medford, where owners reinforced the building's old masonry for $7,500 a few years ago.

The old Central Point Elementary School, which now serves as administrative offices for the Central Point School District, is another example of how masonry structures made with the defective brick of the time have been salvaged.

Architect Gary Asfeth essentially fashioned a structure behind the school's brick walls to stabilize the building at a cost of about $2 million in 2000-01. Construction costs have skyrocketed since then.

In the Ashland School District, officials recently scrapped a plan to demolish the 1903 portion of Bellview Elementary and replace it with a new structure after they found it would cost less to refurbish it.

It will cost about $85 per square foot to remodel the 1903 building versus $170 to demolish and replace it, said architect J. David Wilkerson II, co-principal of Medford-based Ogden Roemer Wilkerson Architecture, who is designing the remodel.

But architect Ken Ogden, who has worked with both the Medford and Ashland districts on their bond projects, said Bellview and sister schools Jackson and Roosevelt aren't comparable.

Bellview is constructed of wood, is primarily one level and is in good condition for its age.

Jackson and Roosevelt's walls of brick tower three stories high and are in poor condition, so costs to renovate would likely differ, Ogden said.

"The historic significance and emotional aspect set aside, the responsible thing to do for children is to demolish the school and to build a new one," Ogden said. "Then you know you have structures that are safe for kids."

Kramer said architects and engineers generally have different levels of comfort about restoring buildings made with the pressed brick.

"I don't think DCI was as creative as they should have been," Kramer said. "If I was a parent I would demand a second opinion."

From the district's perspective, "is the goal to preserve a building we've used for 95 years or is the goal to provide safe, equitable schools for all children?" Long said.

Local civil engineer Edgar Hee, a Roosevelt neighborhood resident, said while he agrees with the district's decision to close the schools, he disapproves of the district's lack of research before the bond election.

"From my perspective it's common sense: If the engineers say the buildings are unsafe, it's unconscionable to keep using them as schools," Hee said.

"As a voter, a bigger question is why did the school leaders wait until after the bond issue passed to request and award engineering studies as to the structural adequacy of the schools? Wouldn't it have been more prudent to have commissioned structural condition surveys before working up bond budgets?"

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or

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