Wednesday, September 19, 2018
I live just a few hundred feet from Churchill School in an older neighborhood over on the west side of Baker City, Oregon. For years I have watched the neighborhood children head for Churchill School, not to study there, but to be picked up and bused to other schools in the city. In the afternoon, the bus would drop them off at Churchill and they would disperse back into the neighborhood. I never viewed the school as an eyesore, just more of an embarrassment for, and a monument to, the irresponsible actions of the 5j Board of Education.
What is a school building really worth?
Those of us who are fortunate enough to own property are advised to insure the property for what it would cost to replace it because rising construction costs guarantee that the replacement cost will be much more than what you paid for it. I mean you have this home that serves your needs and you only paid $80,000 for it, but now it might cost two times that to replace it--Same with a school.
I got to digging around to find relatively current, post recession building costs for schools in Eastern Oregon and found that they are astronomically high, and getting higher. A July 9, 2018 article by the Oregon School Boards Association, Unexpectedlysteep increases in construction expenses strain bond plans, noted that prices were increasing rapidly:
"Scott Rogers, Wenaha Group senior project manager, said a recent bid for an education-related project in eastern Oregon came in about 25 percent over budget. Some construction bid areas — including plumbing, electrical, concrete, masonry and steel — were twice the cost per square foot as for a similar project a year ago, he said. Rogers said tariff"s are wreaking havoc, particularly with steel-related costs. He said a contractor told him that the market is so volatile that an estimate older than 45 days is already obsolete. He said contractors are bidding overtime equivalent rates for regular labor." ....
Rogers, who is the Athena-Weston School Board chair and an OSBA Board member, said a school built in Umatilla County in 2015 cost about $225 per square foot. By 2017 such a project had risen to about $255 per square foot. A similar project Rogers is working on now received bids of $318 per square foot.”
With that information in hand, what is the likely replacement cost of Churchill School? According to the Assessor's office information, Churchill School is 18,258 square feet in size.
I'm not in construction, but it seems that at $255/sq. ft. it would be 255 X 18,258, which equals $4,655,790.00. That's a sizable chunk of change.
At $318/sq. ft. it would be $318 X 18,258, which equals $5,806,044.00. Five million, eight hundred and 6 thousand and forty four dollars! The school board originally sold it for $205,000 and the Vegters bought it for $194,104 in May of this year. Not a bad deal.
A nagging question in the back of my mind of course, is why did the school district sell it in the first place for so little money, and, given that the original purchasers couldn't go through with their plans for it, why didn't they buy it back when they saw school enrollment going back up?
I asked this question in writing, along with several others, to Superintendent Witty on August 22, a month ago, but he hasn't responded to the questions.
One distinct possibility is that they had made other plans some time ago without asking for the public’s approval. After all, they had already purchased property where they want to build their new elementary school. The timely purchase of the Churchill School by the Vegters in May served as a fait accompli, which assured that the possibility of the district buying back Churchill would no longer be available as a solution to our school's crowding problems. In fact, Kevin Cassidy, chairperson for the 5j Board of Education, and facilities committee member Aletha Bonebrake, enthusiastically supported the Vetger's "visionary" commercial project. What a relief it must have been to turn a monument to folly into a purported community asset while guaranteeing it could no longer be used for the purpose for which it was built.
One of the more interesting letters to the planning commission in support of the Vegters using Churchill School, instead of the children it was built for, was from hometown girl Ginger Savage, wife of the County Assessor, former bank executive, former school board member, and now Executive Director of Crossroads Carnegie Art Center. In the letter she was honest in admitting that she was on the school board that sold off this valuable asset.
She began her letter with the words:
"I would like to offer my voice in support of the conditional use permit for Churchill School to Brian and Corrine Vegter. Brian and Corrine bring a solid plan to transform the derelict old school to life again providing a small to mid size performance space, a much needed bike hostel, appropriate limited residential housing for the Vegters to be onsite and to manage the property." (emphasis added)
Golly, how did that old school, which was originally a valuable public asset, become "derelict" in the first place? Oh, that's right, she and the school board got rid of this public asset that could have been put back into use, and that now will cost millions to replace! Much needed bike hostel? I'm sure that was on the top of every citizen's list for town improvements.
The next paragraph was worthy of a 'gag-me-with-a-spoon' award:
"The Vegters are the perfect example of the "artisan class" which communities around the country are attracting to come to move to their cities. The artisan class looks at properties like Churchill and sees opportunity and all the amazing ways they can transform it into working and useful space. The artisans have the talent and abilities to transform buildings. They see opportunity when others see a mess."
Ay yi yi!!!!! OK, artists and creative people are terrific, but do we elevate them above teachers, doctors and other healthcare workers, biologists, social workers, engineers, accountants, builders, electricians, plumbers, bakers, shopkeepers and clerks, and all the other hard working people in our communities? Do we allow public assets to be taken over by them because our leaders and the “artisan class” see a mess and cannot see a school where a school obviously exists? Why do they want to transform what was a working school into a residence and commercial event center, hostel and artist colony in a residential neighborhood when what we need are schools? Is that what we call civic-minded responsibility these days?
And what is the "artisan class" anyway? We are all artisans in one way or the other, but most of us are sensible enough to know we won't be able to make a living at it. Been there, done that. When will the proliferation of stick figures and welded scrap metal animals reach the saturation point where the novelty ends? You can't eat art. Have they not heard of starving artists?
Sorry, but I think it is just another how can I elevate my status thing. As there are fewer satisfying employment opportunities, as resources become depleted, and as robots take over our jobs, what do we do that will reward us personally and bring us some form of social approval, while producing little of intrinsic value except for those few people with money to burn in a society of increasing inequality?
In her final paragraph, Ms. Savage brings up the new theme that using an older school as a school just isn't an option:
"I humbly implore you work with the Vegter's and make this work. If you, as the planning commission, don't start planning for the needs to transform some of our beloved old structures the only option will be demolition."
Given the reality of the actual value of the "artisan class," one wonders why our public assets are being taken over by the artists and those in the middle and upper classes. The question is especially relevant when those public assets and spaces could be used for early learning and the after school care and tutoring of young people, including some art, of course. Crossroads took over the Carnegie Library a long time ago and has a 30 year, no-rent lease. That’s right, they pay nothing for the use of a public building. The poor people of our community cannot afford the fees for classes and the vast majority are not interested anyway. You would think the relatively well off people who use this public facility, including those who are making a living off it, could pay some rent to our city for it. Better yet, we could dump the arts thing and use it as an early learning center for young children.
More on the privatization of Churchill School in future posts.