GP eyes bond measure to replace aging middle schools

The Grants Pass School Board is laying the groundwork for a $129 million bond proposal to replace the aging and overcrowded North and South middle schools.

Last weekend, the district began the first stages of outreach, conducting a phone survey to gather opinions and to spread the word about the failing infrastructure at the two schools.

Enrollment reports for September show that North is 75 students over its 725-student capacity, while South is 155 students over its 680-student capacity. The next five years are expected to bring an additional 300 students between the two schools, which serve students in sixth through eighth grade.

"Overcrowding is the biggest issue at both North and South," said Sherry Ely, business director for the district. "It impacts a lot of areas."

Ely said the issues facing both middle schools include overcrowded gyms and cafeterias, traffic jams in hallways during class changes, outdated plumbing and electrical systems, eroding walls and floors, and more.

South Principal Jeff Weiss cited the challenges he and his students face every day.

"The halls are not big enough to accommodate the students during walking periods. It's a hazard," the principal said, talking about the caution tape on the floors to alert students to classroom doors, which open only one way, resulting in even less space.

Last year, South had to eliminate its computer lab and began using portable Google Chromebooks, similar to laptops, to make way for another classroom.

An additional lunch period was added this year because the cafeteria is too small to accommodate all of the students during only two lunch periods.

Members of the school board have explored several options, including renovation or adding additional classrooms, but architects and construction companies working with the board agree that the most cost-effective approach is to replace both schools.

"Just adding classrooms doesn't take pressure off supporting areas," said Ely, referring to the gym, cafeteria and other common areas.

Ely also explained that lack of space cuts into career and technical training opportunities and makes it difficult to provide students with a "21st century education."

The board hopes to have its $129 million bond measure appear on the May 2017 ballot. The $129 million includes $55 million for rebuilding North and $60 million for South.

The remaining $14 million would be used to install digital security systems allowing lockdowns from the main office at all schools in the district. The lone exception is Lincoln Elementary, which already has a security system in place.

The $14 million also would pay for upgrades to the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems at Grants Pass High School and to replace outdated electrical systems at three of the district's older elementary schools.

The price estimates come from the Portland-based Dull Olson Weekes architectural firm and local ZCS Engineering Inc., both of which produced similar estimates, said Ely.

One proposal was put forth by Jon Weekes of Dull Olson Weekes, who was the architect who designed Grants Pass High School when it was built on the footprint of the old high school in the late 1990s.

Weekes said a two-story middle school with about 141,000 square feet and capable of serving 1,000 students would cost about $310 per square foot, for a total of around $44 million.

Once "soft costs" such as architectural and engineering design fees, construction permits, interest on the bond and other expenses are taken into account, the middle schools came in at $55 million for North and $60 million for South.

The money for the bond would come from a property tax increase of about $2 per $1,000 of assessed value. That's about $200 a year on a home assessed at $100,000, or $400 a year on a home assessed at $200,000.

Because of voter-approved property tax limits, assessed values are generally lower than market values. In Josephine County, assessed values are, on average, about 17 percent lower than market values, although each property is unique. If approved, the levy would continue until the bond is retired in about 25 years.

The new North would be built close to the existing school and behind nearby Highland Elementary School on Highland Avenue.

The new South, meanwhile, would be built in one of two locations: property near Redwood Elementary off Leonard Road or on land near the baseball field at the current South Middle School.

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