By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

Since December, a task force assembled by the Salem-Keizer School District has been meeting to come up with recommendations for how to deal with school overcrowding.

On Monday, Feb. 27, the Long Range Facilities Planning Task Force held its final meeting and assigned a dollar figure to the work that needs to be done to increase capacity at the district’s overflowing schools: about $550 million.

It will now be up to the Salem-Keizer School Board members to decide whether to pursue the full amount – or some portion of it – with a general obligation bond measure that will be put to voters.

The overcrowding issues are most concerning at two district high schools, McKay and McNary. Both schools have grown well beyond their buildings’ capacity, even with portable classroom units stationed at each site. McKay is at 135 percent of its capacity without portables, McNary is at 119 percent without portables.

Those figures drop precipitously with the use of portable classrooms, but portables do not address crowding in communal spaces like cafeterias, libraries, gyms and auditoriums.

To address the issue for the next decade, the task force is recommending increasing the capacity of five district high schools from 2,000 students to 2,200 students. West Salem High School would be the only high school exempt from the increase. That’s in addition to improvements needed at a throng of elementary and middle schools (feeders schools) whose populations pool at the high school level.

During the final task force meeting, discussions were wide-ranging and included topics like seismic upgrades, the need for further Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, and addressing specific classroom needs such as science labs and career technical education.

If voters approve a general obligation bond, teams would be assembled at each targeted school to plan the way forward.

On the topic of seismic upgrades Wolfe said the district is concerned with minimizing the loss of life over saving the buildings for reuse.

“We’re not an organization like a hospital that needs to keep operating in an emergency. (Schools) aren’t built to the highest seismic standard,” Wolfe said.

A subcommittee working on the question of whether to build a new high school or increase capacity at existing schools jettisoned the new high school idea.

“Even if you went out for a new high school, there are still core infrastructure needs (at other schools) that need to be addressed,” said Mark Shipman, a member of the task force.

Even though building a new school would be cheaper on paper, there would still be about $100 million in additional infrastructure work at other schools needs to be completed making it a more costly option in the end, Wolfe said.

Two members of the task force expressed reservations about the final recommendation of expanding capacity. Task force member Lloyd Chapman and Steve Chambers said issues of equity are a major concern at larger schools.

“Many of the studies I looked at talked about incremental differences when you increase populations. At lower socioeconomic levels, the academic results go down,” Chambers said.

Chapman had reservations about moving forward on a plan without more detailed analysis of how expansion would be accomplished at each school.

“I want to make sure we know how we would do things at North and South, and what do we do if we can’t (expand),” Chapman said. North Salem and South Salem high schools are two of the most landlocked campuses in the district.

(Keizertimes will have a more in-depth look at the way rising enrollment numbers are affecting Keizer schools in the March 10 issue.)