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Closure deadline: Middle school planning

By Stephen Floyd

Officials in the Silver Falls School District (SFSD) had their first serious talk about the possibility of closing Silverton Middle School as they moved forward with a bond to replace the facility.

During the Jan. 29 meeting of the SFSD Board, Superintendent Scott Drue proposed a deadline of June of 2027 to close the campus and sought board member input.

He said this timeframe would allow enough time to take measured steps toward a transition.

June of 2027 would also leave the district on firmer financial footing, he said, amid bonds and loans coming to a close and the replenishing of reserves expended after recent disasters.

While there was general consensus among the board that the current middle school should be closed, they were split on whether or not a firm closure timeline would be helpful. Their discussions prompted serious examination of the benefits of closing the school versus keeping the aging facility open, both in terms of funding and the impacts on students’ lives.

The board was expected to vote Feb. 12 (past Our Town’s press deadline) on whether or not to place a $73 million facilities bond on the May 21 ballot. The proposal would replace the middle school and provide repairs and upgrades at Silverton High School.

This is a follow-up to a $138 million bond voters rejected Nov. 7, 2023. It would have funded a new middle school as well as critical improvements to the other ten schools in the district.

The district has identified SMS as its most critical infrastructure need. Concerns include the 1938 wing that has been closed off as a health hazard, as well as the extra $100,000 spent annually to maintain the deteriorating campus. 

During the Jan. 29 meeting, Board Chair Jennifer Traeger said a closure deadline as proposed by Drue would help voters understand the possible impact of a “No” vote in May. She said 2023 bond efforts focused on the benefits of a “Yes” vote and she said voters need to understand both options.

“I think putting a date on it makes it real,” she said.

Board Member Owen Von Flue said some voters may look at the $100,000 in excess maintenance costs and decide that’s preferable to a $73 million bond. He said convincing such voters would require a very compelling reason and he was unsure if they would be swayed by a closure deadline.

Board Member Joshua Ort said he was uncomfortable committing to a deadline without knowing what it would cost to keep the current campus compared to building a new one. He cited critics of the 2023 bond effort who “already think we spend our money poorly” and said, if the board committed to a timeline without additional information “this would just further that sentiment.”

Board Member Tom Buchholz said the human cost must be weighed in addition to the finances, as closing the school would displace roughly 440 students and dozens of employees. One solution SFSD has explored is sending students to the outlying K-8 schools, and Buchholz said this distance from their current school community would cause further upheaval.

He acknowledged this social disruption as well as the financial impact would not be known without a plan in place, but questioned if a deadline would feel too forceful to voters.

Board Member Derrick Foxworth suggested drafting a more generalized explanation of the need for an exit strategy if the bond fails, including possible closure of the current building. The board agreed with this strategy and was expected to vote on a final draft of the language by Feb. 26, which if approved would appear among the explanatory statements on the ballot.

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