School district owes answers

Last June, when Medford School District 549C abruptly announced that both Jackson and Roosevelt elementary schools were in danger of "immediate collapse" in the event of an earthquake, my years of preservation experience told me that something else was afoot.

Valued buildings don't suddenly become so dangerous that they can't be saved. And it was particularly suspicious when 549C announced this decision during the last week of classes.

In late summer, at the request of a Medford city council member, I met with Dr. Phil Long, 549C superintendent, to discuss alternatives that would allow the schools to be economically rehabbed and retained, saving the district the costs of demolition and reconstruction on the sites. During that meeting it was obvious that 549C officials had not done sufficient homework to determine these buildings were in fact beyond saving and, more importantly, that they didn't really want to.

"They don't work well for us as schools," Dr. Long honestly told me.

Public pressure has subsequently forced the district to obtain a second opinion on the buildings, a report prepared by Peter Meijer and ABHT Engineers. So far the district has released only the ABHT peer review of the initial engineering study, a short document that basically confirms that these buildings are unreinforced masonry and have some structural issues.

Big surprise. This is not the catastrophic news the district would have you believe, nor is it a smoking gun that requires Jackson and Roosevelt neverbe reopened.

It is telling, I think, that the brick studies on these buildings have been withheld from the public. I rather imagine the brick isn't as bad as 549C wishes it was.

District 549C garnered a very narrow victory in November 2006 for $189 million construction bond, a campaign that promised voters several things, among them the rehabilitation of Jackson and Roosevelt schools. This was a key element in passage, since pre-bond polling showed that closing those schools resulted in failure. The district is now going back on its word, hoarding information on its decision-making process and, in my opinion, behaving imperiously and irresponsibly.

I am neither a Medford resident nor an educator. I will leave it to others to decide if Medford needs as many elementary schools as it currently operates.

I do think, however, that the district promised voters in November 2006 to rehabilitate Jackson and Roosevelt, that these buildings are salvageable if the district or anyone else wants to, and that the district is not being fair, ethical or honest by unilaterally determining to do otherwise.

District 549C owes taxpayers and parents, especially the taxpayers and parents in the Jackson and Roosevelt neighborhoods, answers. Their behavior and lack of communication do all elected government and all taxing entities in Southern Oregon a huge disservice by so callously disregarding the public they serve.

Saving historic buildings is the least of the issues here, it is just the one that reveals the little regard 549C has for communication.

George Kramer is a historic preservation consultant living in Ashland.

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