A home adjacent to West Salem High School would become part of the high school campus after the Salem-Keizer School Board's vote (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
The Salem-Keizer school board voted unanimously to buy a home next to West Salem High School Tuesday night over objections from about 20 Salem residents who emailed board members urging them to spend the money elsewhere.
The district will pay about $500,000 for a 1.3-acre property at 1755 Doaks Ferry Road, a corner lot that's currently a single-family home.
Part of that land would be used to expand parking for the school to add about 100 spaces as part of a planned $34.5 million campus expansion scheduled to begin in 2021. The rest would remain available for any school needs in the future, said Mike Wolfe, the district's chief operations officer.
Parent Angela Obrey, who lives in south Salem, wrote board members with concerns the purchase would take money that could be better used to address more urgent needs at other Salem-Keizer schools, particularly McKay High School.
“Spending money in parking or ... whatever those possible future things might be seems out of step when the serious needs are so clearly defined right now: the graduate disparity rates," Obrey said to the board Tuesday night.
Obrey said she learned of the proposal from a Salem Reporter article. More than a dozen other citizens, including Salem City Councilman Tom Andersen, wrote the board echoing her concerns and saying they agreed with the concerns she raised.
The money comes out of the $620 million Salem-Keizer voters approved in the spring of 2018 to renovate and add space at many district schools, including all six traditional high schools.
That money must be spent on capital projects. It can't be used to hire teachers or other staff or pay other operating costs.
West Salem, one of the newest and least crowded high schools in the district, is receiving less money than the other five and is one of the last scheduled to undergo renovations. North Salem and McNary high schools are currently under construction and South Salem and McKay are scheduled to begin next year.
But community members said the purchase raised equity issues about resource distribution between the district's wealthier schools with more white students and high schools with a higher proportion of low-income students and students of color. It's a concern that's come up repeatedly as Salem-Keizer leaders and the board have decided school boundaries and fleshed out construction projects over the past year.
“I am very very disappointed in the school board for making this purchase and completely disregarding a whole population of students just for one high school," said Adriana Escorcia, a 2018 McKay graduate who attended the meeting. She said she'd rather see the money used to further expand McKay.
District leaders, including Wolfe, decided in the spring to spend $6 million more than originally planned at McKay after suggestions from school staff. That brings the total cost to about $60 million.
Wolfe framed the West Salem land purchase as both a security issue and a logical choice to acquire land in a growing school district.
“This is the only outlier that keep the district form owning a contiguous property," said Wolfe, explaining the proposal to the board. “We can provide much more security when we own the whole parcel as opposed to a section owned by the private sector.”
It's common for district leaders to buy property adjacent to schools when it becomes available because it prevents future legal battles if schools expand in the future and a neighboring property owner doesn't want to sell.
That costly and contentious process played out last year, when the board voted to authorize eminent domain to acquire land from St. Edwards Catholic Church in Keizer to expand McNary High School. The church and district ultimately settled on a sale price before going through a condemnation process.
Marty Heyen, the board chair, who represents the area including McKay, said she understood ongoing concerns about overcrowding and equity at the school, and said school boundary changes that went into affect this fall are showing some improvements. But she said the purchase made sense.
“If the same opportunity had shown up at any other school, I would be just as likely to vote for that property as I would to vote for this one," she said.
Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.