Orient School is gearing up for a $5.9 million remodel that will update the 100-year-old building by installing new heating and cooling systems, providing compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, improving fire safety in the historic building, constructing a covered play area and updating classrooms and offices.
The Valley School District, contracted to undertake a portion of the Orient school’s administrative work, said the improvements are necessary, despite the fact the school only has 38 traditional students who attend class every day. Another 282 students are enrolled in the Columbia Virtual Academy through the Orient School.
“The current building is 100-years-old and has not received any construction projects since the 1940s and 1950s,” said Valley School Superintendent Mark Selle. “The students attending there need access to quality educational space.”
Will preserve historic appearance of building.
The school hired an architect to design a modernization plan that would keep the “historic” look of the building, according to school principal, Tara Holmes.
“Throughout the design process, the architects have done a remarkable job in preserving the historical appearance of the building, while creating a facility that meets the educational and safety requirements of a modern school,” she said in a press release. “A focus is also being placed on creating a low-maintenance facility that is energy efficient and provides improved student access to technology.”
However, not everyone in the Orient community supports the project. Senator Bob Morton has received complaints about the cost of the project for the small school, as well as expressing concerns about the district independently approving the project without putting it to voters.
“The issue here is that there has been limited opportunity for public input and after only one public meeting, it was decided to move forward with the project,” said Senator Morton. “Usually, projects of this sizable amount are put out to the community through a levy or some other mechanism to assure public approval. This is not appropriate in a democratic society and in the future there will be legislation to prevent this sort of thing from happening.”
The district did not have to put out a levy measure to voters because the project will be paid for by the state via the Education Construction Fund and not by a local property tax levy. The education construction fund will provide a 93 percent match for the $5.9 million modernization. A local match of $591,000 will be paid for from the school’s savings ($251,000) and $340,000 in borrowed funds.
Superintendent Selle said the district hopes that with careful management of the state dollars that there will be leftover money with which the district can pay back the $340,000 debt the school will incur to get the project started.
Selle said through an administrative decision that the Orient School Board decided to move ahead with the remodel in order to address a coming dilemma.
“While the numbers at the Orient School may be small, the fact remains that there are still school-aged children in the area who are required by state law to receive schooling,” he said. “The school building is not currently meeting the needs of the students or staff and it is our duty to provide a safe place for them to learn.”
Although parents may home-school, as nearly 250 enrolled in the Orient School are doing through virtual schools, or attend private school, the need for an in-person, “brick and mortar” public school will still likely be present in the future.
“It is an unrealistic scenario that at some point there will be no students in the area who need to attend a public school building,” Selle said. “We are tasked with providing schooling to students in this large geographic area, even if there are only two students, for example.”
If the Orient School closed due to low enrollment, students would have to be bussed to a neighboring district like Kettle Falls or Curlew and the taxable property of the area would be incorporated into that school district.
Financially, this means residents of Orient, who do not currently pay a local school levy, but only the state school levy, would be asked to absorb another property tax.
Superintendent Selle feels this would put an unfair burden on the community.
“When you compare the tax base in Orient to other parts of the state, it is almost unjust to try and raise a dollar here,” he said. “The community supported a levy for some repairs two years ago, but this is an opportunity to modernize the building without burdening the local property owners.”
Selle said using the state education construction dollars is a good move because the fund has money for these kinds of capital education projects and “Orient might as well use the money and benefit, instead of losing out to another school in the state.”
The state Education Construction fund is created in part by dollars from the state lottery and revenue from timber sales on public lands.
The final bids for the Orient School project are expected to be in by September 1 and work should begin this fall. While the building is being renovated, the classrooms and teacher offices will be housed in the district office buildings and a nearby duplex. (See related story).
For more information on the project, contact Superintendent Mark Selle at 937-2771 or Orient School Principal Tara Holmes at 684-6873.