Bond planning deeply flawed

Medford School District administrators and board members are caught in a no-win situation, with a narrowly passed construction bond measure that isn't big enough to complete the work voters were promised. They now must choose between a range of unpleasant options, each of which will infuriate a sizable portion of district residents.

The worst part, for them, is that they have no one to blame but themselves. The worst part for the community is that the district's credibility is now crumbling as badly as its buildings.

The first sign of trouble came in the spring of 2006, when the district's facilities planning committee working on the bond measure discussed closing or mothballing Jackson and Roosevelt elementary schools. That idea set off an uproar in the neighborhoods and the district backed down. That was the right move, especially after a survey of district voters revealed the bond measure would fail if it included closing one or both of the schools.

At that point, school officials should have taken a hard look at scaling back other parts of the sweeping construction plan to make sure the district could deliver what it was promising. They did make some adjustments, among them scrapping plans for a third middle school at the existing South Medford High School and eliminating elementary classroom additions that would have housed displaced Jackson students.

But after the bond measure passed — by about 300 votes — the adjustments turned out to be insufficient. And to make matters worse, engineering studies conducted after the election concluded that both Jackson and Roosevelt elementary schools were too dilapidated to safely house students.

Some Medford residents are convinced that district administrators planned all along to close Jackson or Roosevelt or both, and deliberately manipulated the bond planning process to deceive voters about their intentions. That's not a charge that is likely to be proven one way or the other, but it's easy enough to understand voters' suspicions.

First, there was the engineering study that wasn't performed until after the bond had passed. Administrators said they didn't want to wind up paying off the debt for that study if the bond failed.

Then, to make the bond measure more palatable, planners cut corners, including a $6 million reduction in money they should have known would be needed to remove asbestos in aging buildings.

Second, they inexplicably failed to account for inevitable inflation in construction costs — figures provided by the architect advising the planning committee but omitted from the bond proposal.

The decision to forego detailed engineering and architectural studies before the vote has proven to be penny-wise and pound-foolish. It meant the planning committee was given too little information to know what the real costs would be. In addition, the panel was clearly under pressure to keep the total bond request below $200 million to help ensure passage. So asbestos removal and inflation mysteriously disappeared from the equation.

This leads to the conclusion that there were either some very raw politics at work or there was some very inept planning — or perhaps a bit of both.

In the end, the district got its $189 million. But the damage to its credibility can't be measured in dollars.

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