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New York Times: School district bets future on real estate
Author: Kirk Johnson
Posted: September 6, 2012

Read the original article in the New York Times here.

GERVAIS, Ore. — This tiny farm-country community is having a back-to-school sale, on the schools themselves. Interested in a well maintained, one-owner elementary with playground and orchard view? Or a 1990s charmer, now used for teaching second through fifth grades but convenient to shopping and the Interstate?

Like school districts all over the nation, Gervais, with about 1,100 students in a town of 2,300 people, has been deeply stressed by years of financial retrenchment. Music and art classes were eliminated last year. Teaching positions have been reduced through attrition and layoffs loom in years ahead, with state aid showing few signs of a robust comeback.

So this summer, administrators took radical action against their sea of troubles. In tough times, why should Gervais (pronounced JER-vis) do things the way everybody else was doing them? That is how the district superintendent, Rick Hensel, recalled the tone of the meetings as teachers, staff members and residents tossed around ideas.

The board’s decision, in June, was a fire sale. Three of the five school buildings in the district — all six miles or more from town, holdovers from a time when rural districts like this built a little school every few miles — were put on the market. Asking prices range from $460,000 for the smallest elementary, to $844,000 for a school on eight acres zoned for agriculture, to $2.4 million for an elementary school on 10 acres zoned for residential use.

The second part of the decision was in some ways even more momentous as a measure of how the recession is still reshaping the nation: a consolidation of all the students and classrooms in the 65-square-mile district in downtown Gervais.

Proceeds from the building sales would be put toward new classrooms. Cost savings from reduced busing and other efficiencies of a centralized cluster would save teaching jobs and, with luck, board members said, lead to restoration of arts programs. A $4.2 million bond, on the ballot here in November, would pay for the transformation in time for the 2013 school year, even if the old schools had not yet sold or been leased.

“It wasn’t that we’re broke and desperate,” said Mr. Hensel, who added that several potential buyers had contacted the district but that no firm offers had yet emerged. “We were looking for a way to keep from desperation.”

But Gervais’s story also reflects a demographic transformation here in the Willamette Valley south of Portland. What had been a deeply rural world a few generations back — big farm families spread out across the fertile Willamette plain — was changing even before the recession. Commuters with jobs in Salem, half an hour southwest, or Portland, an hour north, moved into town in the early 2000s. The population, only 500 people or so in years past, more than quadrupled. Farm kids had become town kids.

“It used to be that two-thirds of the population of the school district lived in the outlying areas,” said Brent LaFollette, the school board chairman, “and now it’s just about a complete opposite, in that two-thirds of the district lives right here in Gervais.”

What that means for the new district plan is that student transportation ratios will flip as well, from 60 percent of the students on a bus this year — mostly elementary school age, heading to the outlying schools — to about 60 percent living within one mile of school.

Luck, or foresight by past education leaders, also played a role in making the consolidation possible. About eight years ago, the district bought 17 acres adjoining the high school. It sat mostly empty for years, but now sports fields have been moved there, clearing space for the new buildings.

The structures themselves will also be a kind of experiment. This summer, Gervais district officials contacted an architecture team at Portland State University that has been working on new designs for mobile classrooms, incorporating green building standards like improved natural light, air circulation and energy efficiency into modular school construction, which has surged all over the country as schools have tried to control costs. The Gervais project will be one of the first to use the new designs.

“They had the foresight to say, ‘How we do reorganize and look at the future?’ ” said Sergio Palleroni, an associate professor of architecture at Portland State and a co-designer of the new school model with Margarette Leite, an assistant professor of architecture.

Some students, enjoying the last days of summer vacation on a recent sunny afternoon, were less confident that having all the schools in one place would be wonderful. Suzanna Rambeau, 16, is a junior. Her senior year, if all goes according to plan, would be the first year of the new era.

“Having a bunch of little kids around, I don’t know,” she said. “It’s already cramped.”

She was also skeptical that arts programs would come back in time to benefit her. She was a flute player, she said, until the band program ended.

But Britanny Moreno, 7, a second grader who will take the bus to her school when classes start this week, said she had a big plan for third grade, when that school will be just down the street from her house.

“I could ride my bike,” she said.