Ongoing construction at McKay High School on Wednesday, Feb. 10. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Twenty-five local schools will be renovated in 2021 as the Salem-Keizer School District enters the busiest year of its years-long construction blitz - one of the largest such efforts in Oregon history.

The work, which will touch every school in the district, has expanded considerably since voters first approved borrowing $619.7 million in 2018, to be repaid through 20 years of property taxes.

Projects are on schedule, with some areas like major seismic work at South Salem High School “well ahead of schedule,” said Joel Smallwood, the district’s director of maintenance and construction services, who is overseeing the construction program.

The Covid pandemic, which has kept most students out of schools for most of the year, gave construction crews more time for interior work in buildings originally supposed to be crammed into summer vacation.

The district added $116 million to what voters approved, doing so by the way it sold bonds used for financing such work. With new state grants, interest earned and other reimbursements as well, project managers added more work to several large projects - without costing taxpayers more.

School officials tucked away $90 million in contingency.

“This is when, in large programs of this scale, you're looking around to make sure you got enough money to close it out, and good news for all of you is that we do have enough money,” said Mike Wolfe, the district chief operations officer, addressing a January meeting of a community advisory committee overseeing the projects.

Wolfe said the district would like to spend about half of any leftover money to repair buildings or for replacement projects that didn’t make the cut for the current work list. That could include replacing heating and ventilation systems that have reached the end of their useful life in the years since the construction program was designed.

Such a plan would go first to the advisory committee counseling the district and then the school board later this year, he said.

“There’s so much more of that work that didn’t get into the bond and every year that goes by there’s more of that work that emerges,” Wolfe told Salem Reporter.

The rest would remain in contingency until the construction run finishes in 2024, at which point Wolfe said any extra would be used for other building repair and renovation needs.

The budget for South Salem High School remodel, currently underway, rose $18 million to $84 million, making it by far the most expensive project. The added costs came from a decision to increase the size of the auditorium once district officials knew they had additional money available, and because of seismic and street work that was more extensive than planned. Changing market conditions, including a new Oregon tax on corporate activity, also raised the price.

Walls on a new auditorium and wing of the building went up recently on the site where the old Leslie Middle School building once sat. Principal Lara Tiffin marveled at the bare concrete structure on a recent walk-through.

“It’s starting to be easier to imagine our students in it, and it makes me excited for our first performance,” she said.

Tiffin said she’s particularly excited about two new culinary classrooms to support one of the school’s most popular career programs. Right now, two teachers share a single kitchen built in 1954 for home economics lessons, she said.

McKay High School, also being remodeled, will see more classrooms and space for orchestra and arts programs than were included in the original 2018 work plan for the building. Those features, plus the corporate activity tax and other market changes, added about $10 million to the original design. The project is now budgeted for $57 million.

Principal Rob Schoepper said an addition on the south side of the building will provide room for agriculture, culinary and engineering programs. McKay’s culinary program has about 1,000 interested students each year and doesn’t have enough space for everyone who wants to take a class. Currently, about 700 get into the program each year, Schopper said.

A new black box theater and orchestra room will eliminate the need to hold music classes in tiny classrooms or the school auditorium.

“We had an orchestra teacher that basically taught in the closet,” Schoepper said.

Both high schools are expected to finish construction in time for school in the fall.

Local taxpayers will finish paying off new classrooms, science labs, security systems and seismic upgrades about when this year’s kindergarteners graduate high school.

In 2020, Salem taxpayers owed $2.74 per $1,000 of assessed property value on the project - $557 for an average home valued at $203,592.

For Salem homeowners, the school construction represents about 14% of total property taxes for the year.

Wolfe said about 60% of all costs for the construction program have been locked in, and he expects that number to rise to 70 or 75% by the end of the summer.

Construction projects are now complete at 13 schools, including major renovations at North Salem and McNary high schools.

Hoover Elementary is among the latest to be completed, with changes Principal Bridget West said will make it easier to bring her students back into the classroom under Covid health protocols starting in March.

Workers built new classrooms and connected the gym to the rest of the school.

The school will now be “one building, one roof,” West said.

The new classrooms have new single desks, “a hot commodity” as more schools find ways to keep students further apart, West said. And the addition has its own entrance, making it easier to check kids in and out of the building without them congregating in large groups.

Before the expansion, school lunches were staggered between 10:45 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. because the school’s lunchroom was too small to accommodate students. That schedule sometimes posed challenges for kids.

“Some get super cranky late because they’ve already eaten lunch at 10:45,” West said. More space means fewer lunch periods will be needed to get all students fed.

The field where the portable classrooms once stood has been seeded with grass for a soccer field. West said she’s eager to give students more space to run around, because many in the neighborhood live in apartments and don’t have a yard to play in.

“Our community deserves to have a place where kids can be kids,” West said.

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

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