Vernonia stakes future on new school

Vernonia stakes future on new school

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Above: The 2007 flood filled Washington Grade School's basement with 39 inches of water. 
Below: Lockers were painted on the wall outside the gym after the high school was torn down. Students won't park in the vacant lot where their high school used to be.
// Photos by Justin Tunis
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“We are going to make the school the catalyst for our economic change forever more,” declared Tony Hyde, a Columbia County Commissioner, former logger and past mayor of Vernonia.

It is inarguable that this beauty of a school, with room for 1,000 students and abundant space for community use, will be far better than the flood-damaged, ragtag buildings it replaces. Every time it rains, anxious grade-schoolers ask if it will flood again. Since the flood, middle and high school students have been in temporary modular classrooms. “Three blocks from the band room to the classrooms with no cover,” says Cox. The class of 2012 will graduate next summer having never had a high school, much less simple things like lockers, save those painted on the walls outside the gym in memoriam. Since 2007, Vernonia’s population has dropped to 2,155, and the number of students has fallen from 697 two months before the flood to 590 this past June.

What is arguable is how much a school can jump-start the recovery of a town that faces formidable problems such as few local jobs, broken infrastructure and costly flood recovery. But to live in rural Oregon today takes equal parts hope, resiliency and sometimes a crazy notion of what is possible, so on this day in late June it was time to celebrate the potential.

Mike Pihl watched the walls come up. Pihl, who owns a logging company and sits on the city’s economic development committee, has four children in Vernonia schools. More famously, the 6-foot-4 Pihl has been on the History Channel’s reality show Ax Men for five seasons.

“If it wasn’t for this,” he observed, “you might as well wipe Vernonia off the map.”