Salem-Keizer may soon own the career center hundreds of its students attend

Science teacher Jasmine Filley works with Lincoln Feiring, a year two student in the agriscience program at the Career Technical Education Center, to set up a team meeting on Wednesday, March 17, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Salem’s school district could get a $20 million gift Tuesday night.

After six years operating construction, cosmetology and other career-focused programs at a former manufacturing facility on Northeast Portland Road, the Salem-Keizer School District is now poised to own the building and the land it sits on.

The school board will vote Tuesday on accepting the donation of the Career Technical Education Center, a public-private partnership with ten programs serving hundreds of high school juniors and seniors.

Students attending the center spend two days per week there, taking classes focused on their chosen career pathway, as well as subjects like math or English tailored to the professional skills they’re learning.

That means culinary students learn food science and law enforcement students practice report writing. The remainder of their week is spent at their regular high school.

“Students walk through the doors because they see a future for themselves here,” said Rhonda Rhodes, the center’s principal, at a Sept. 28 school board work session.

Mountain West Investment Corporation purchased the 145,000 square foot building in 2014 to establish the center. (Disclosure: Larry Tokarski, Mountain West president, is also a co-founder of Salem Reporter.)

Mountain West subsequently donated the building to Salem-based nonprofit Community Resource Trust, which has leased the facility to the district for $1 per year since, principal Rhonda Rhodes said.

The center expanded over five years, starting with two programs and adding two more each year until 2019. Culinary arts and sustainable plant science were the final additions.

Nielsen Manufacturing Inc. manufactured sheet aluminum at the site until 2005, and the land is now owned by Suntek Oregon LLC, which is run by the Nielsen family.

Now, the trust and Suntek want to donate the building and the land it sits on to the district.

The soil and groundwater at the site is contaminated with hexavalent chromium, a metal that is toxic when inhaled and increases risk of lung cancer with long-term exposure, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration.

Sampling at the site has identified the metal in the soil at concentrations of up to 7.48 milligrams per kilogram of soil. That’s about 25 times the 0.3 milligrams per kilogram level at which the state recommends regular monitoring or actions to reduce the risk posed by the chemical, according to an October 2020 report from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

But that report said the contamination doesn’t pose a risk inside the building so long as the groundwater below isn’t used and food crops aren’t grown in the soil.

Through the center has a plant science program, students use hydroponic and aeroponic systems to grow indoors, rather than using any soil at the site.

Dust wipe sampling inside the building in 2017 found levels of the metal were well below a federal threshold for health screenings, the report said.

“We’ve estimated the risks in a very conservative way. There is no exposure pathway,” said Mike Wolfe, the district’s chief operations officer, during a school board work session on Sept. 28.

He said the district plans to eventually cap the only exposed soil at the site.

If the board approves the land and building donation, the district will enter into an agreement with the Department of Environmental Quality saying it will continue to take steps to minimize the risk of exposure to the contamination.

That means groundwater at the center could not be used, food crops could not be grown in the ground and the district must maintain asphalt, driveways and other pavement onsite to reduce the risk of people coming into contact with contaminated soil.

The department plans to issue a letter to the district saying no further action to address the contamination is needed once the building transfer is complete.

The school board on Tuesday will also consider a resolution committing to antiracism, and a “hands and words are not for hurting” proclamation. View the full agenda here.

Meeting details: The Salem-Keizer School Board meets Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the Student Services Center, 2575 Commercial Street S.E. The meeting is capped at 60 people and face coverings are required. The meeting will be livestreamed on YouTube in English and Spanish, and on CC Media, channel 21.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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