WARRENTON — Every weekday morning, more than 700 students stream into Warrenton Grade School from school buses and idling cars crowding the parking lot.
The growing housing developments around Clatsop Plains, so far the region’s best answer to the housing crunch, have been a boon for Warrenton-Hammond School District’s enrollment. While other school districts shrank over the past decade, Warrenton-Hammond has grown by nearly 20 percent, topping 1,000 students for the first time this year in initial enrollment counts.
The growth leaves the Warrenton-Hammond School Board with some big decisions to make. Does the district build within its existing schools, hedged in by city streets and wetlands? Does it utilize or sell property the district owns in Hammond? Does the district follow Seaside’s example and ask voters to fund a new campus on higher ground?
Superintendent Mark Jeffery said the grade school has filled nearly every nook and cranny available to provide more educational space and avoid increasing class sizes. Closets and storage spaces have been turned into offices and classrooms; the library has been pared down by two-thirds to make way for a new multipurpose gym; and larger classrooms have been split in two.
The school board is poised to approve a $2 million bond Tuesday to cover the district’s needs in the next five years. Business Manager Mike Moha said the bond is similar to a loan on the full faith and credit of the district to repay. He said the district can afford it by redirecting the $135,000 or so spent each year on building maintenance.
The bond would help repair a leaking roof at Warrenton High School, potentially purchase property near the grade school for additional parking and fund the construction of up to seven new classrooms over the next five years.
Jeffery estimates the district’s enrollment will grow another 10 percent by then, with each new grade from this year going forward averaging nearly 90 students. “In five years, temporary measures will not work for us,” he told the school board last week during a meeting to chart the district’s future.
A small percentage of the $2 million bond will be used to prepare for a possible larger, voter-approved bond to accommodate Warrenton’s future enrollment growth, which Jeffery doesn’t see peaking until 2024-25 at 1,159 students.
“I’ve had several people come out and tell me you can pass a bond here no problem,” Jeffery told the school board last week.
School board member Greg Morrill had his doubts the 5,500 residents of Warrenton would be willing to shoulder an amount similar to Seaside’s bond of $100 million, which would cover an entirely new K-12 campus on higher ground.
“It’s just really tough for an average voter in a small community to stomach those numbers,” Morrill said. “We have to be up front about what it would cost an average household annually.”
Board members also discussed scaled-back options, such as constructing a second story to double the space the middle school occupies inside the grade school, or moving the bus barn from the high school to create more classroom space. But any expansion requires more parking, which the district is already running short on.
Multiple board members were open to moving the schools to an entirely new campus, but want less expensive alternatives to give the community options.
Board Chairwoman Debbie Morrow said the district needs to hire a consultant to get the community’s pulse prior to going out for a bond. One challenge, Jeffery said, is that Seaside can point to an impending earthquake and tsunami as clear reasons to move schools, whereas Warrenton faces more danger from flooding.
Board member Kelly Simonsen said the district also needs to be careful comparing its situation with Seaside’s $100 million ask for a new campus. “That might not be what we need,” she said.
Until the early 1980s, seventh- and eighth-graders in Warrenton attended Fort Stevens Junior High School, located on a now-vacant lot just south of Fort Stevens State Park in Hammond. Former principal Dick Hellberg said the school was vacated after the district consolidated kindergarten through eighth grade at the grade school.
But the need for more space has the district looking at a potential return to Hammond, or another use for the property. Jeffery said the property could work as a modular middle school with a multipurpose gym space. The former junior high’s gym was located on a nearby 1.5-acre lot the district also owns.
The district had an appraisal for the larger property, still zoned for a school, done four years ago, showing little value. But Morrill said the property could prove quite valuable if rezoned residential, subdivided and sold off.
The county owns a soccer field west of the intersection of Ridge Road and Eighth Street, a short drive from the grade school. Morrill said the district could also get more space by reaching out to the county about building a track around the field, allowing the district to utilize the field at the grade school.
Five years may seem like a long time, Jeffery said, but the district will need all of it to ensure class space in the short-term, plan for and secure a bond and construct whatever long-term solution it finds.
“We don’t have a lot of time to decide,” he said. “Every month we wait, the enrollment keeps increasing.”