Plenty of blame to go around

The Medford School Board appeared stunned when told in June that two elementary schools would have to close immediately because of structural problems. Turns out there should have been no surprise; reports on the serious issues at the schools have been circulating for more than two decades.

But before the community decides this is evidence of either a conspiracy or negligence on the part of the school district, voters should take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask what part they played in the unfolding events.

A story on Page 1A today reveals a long list of correspondence sent to the district and within the district detailing problems at Jackson and Roosevelt elementary schools. The first written evidence of problems appears in a 1986 memo sent to then-Superintendent Steve Wisely discussing deterioration of exterior walls. More engineering memos and staff reports were filed over the next two decades, culminating in a report filed this year by a Portland firm that concluded the brick buildings were no longer safe to occupy.

That set off a flurry of summer construction activity, as the district moved students from the affected schools to four different sites. It also greatly complicated the plans for rebuilding and remodeling virtually every district school with bond funds approved in a November vote.

School administrators, who were given a great opportunity with approval of the $189 million bond measure, now must figure out to spread that money to tackle extra costs at the two schools and escalating construction costs for all the projects. They have come in for criticism from some corners for not undertaking a full structural study of the schools before putting the bond measure on the ballot.

There are too many red flags in the written records regarding Jackson and Roosevelt — both built in 1911 — to absolve district officials, past and present, of the mess. It's clear these schools have had major problems for years and it's equally clear the public was not informed.

We, the public, however, have our own issues when it comes to school maintenance. The tax revolt of the 1990s stripped school districts of maintenance money as they were forced to dip deeper into their general funds just to keep the doors open. Anti-tax and anti-public education forces sold the lie that schools had plenty of money, if only they would eliminate the "waste and fraud." In the end, schools curtailed classroom hours, stopped buying textbooks and tried to ignore the growing list of maintenance problems.

The piper has been playing this tune for years and it appeared that Medford school officials and voters finally heard it when the bond measure was approved in November. But years of denial have raised the price even higher than we imagined.

There is good news in the midst of this: First, despite the setbacks, a great deal of badly needed work will be done on our schools and, second, district officials are not sweeping the problems under the rug, but dealing with them head-on.

It is clear that we will not get all we had hoped for when the bond measure was passed in November. In large part, that's due to our collective failure to deal with problems that have been festering for decades. It's a hard lesson, but one that we hope both the school district and the community have learned.

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