Vernonia stakes future on new school

Vernonia stakes future on new school

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Raise that wall

On a cool, rainy morning in late June, about 80 people — townspeople, local and state officials, Portland business leaders, philanthropists, teachers, and students — gathered on a hill overlooking the construction of Vernonia’s new $39.3 million K-12 school.

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At the June wall-raising celebration, from left: Columbia County commissioner Tony Hyde, Portland businessman Tom Kelly, Northwest Natural community relations manager Von Summers, and Vernonia school superintendent Ken Cox.
// Photo by Justin Tunis

Getting to this day took Herculean efforts. The town had to identify a workable site out of the flood plain, navigate a rat’s nest of land-use and zoning regulations, upgrade roads and infrastructure, and find the money to begin. All this while painfully watching families, students, businesses and opportunity seep from the town. For three and a half years, the town held together its existing schools with band-aids and hope while the world moved on and largely forgot that Vernonia had almost been lost to the 2007 flood, the second — and more damaging — of two 500-year floods in 11 years.

“It’s a long time for people to be patient,” says Dan Brown, the town’s planning commission chair, flood recovery manager and owner of the downtown Grey Dawn Gallery.

But on this day, it was time to gather and celebrate the new 135,000-square-foot school taking shape on land 50 feet higher than where the current schools now sit.

As the construction crew worked below at the 32-acre site, kids gobbled donuts and townspeople and visiting dignitaries joined Vernonia school superintendent Ken Cox as he led the crowd in a whoop of “Raise that wall!” With that first wall it became certain that a new school — and a new idea about the town’s future — would open its doors next September. More than just a cool sustainable school being built to LEED platinum standards, this school is envisioned as a building block in the town’s economic future with ideas such as a natural resources curriculum, university partnerships, using locally purchased biomass, and training students and the community to be part of a green economy workforce — the hopeful triumph of the flywheel effect over the doom loop.