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A new school and new beginning in Vernonia

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Robin Doussard
Wednesday, August 22, 2012


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Finally, the day had come to savor the victory. It had been five years of uncertainty, fighting, wrangling, and putting up with going to school in some pretty sorry conditions. But after five years of herculean efforts by the community, supporters, funders and others, Vernonia’s new K-12 school was christened on Tuesday.

Up out of the flood plain where the old schools existed, this $40 million beauty stands high and proud, a rebuke to the 2007 flood that devastated the old schools and to those who said Vernonia should just call it quits and bus their kids to another district. Call it quits and take the lifeblood out of the town, give up on its gathering place, its children, and its largest employer.

The town did not give up and it also had an ambitious idea: link the school to the town’s economy and “build it back better” so that it wasn’t just a school, but a catalyst for a new green economy of the future, focused on studies relevant to its rural students, partnering with universities, and buying local biomass.

But on this day, it was all about the here-and-now reality of a beautiful new school and it was a day to savor. Kids, parents, teachers and a load of officials and invited dignitaries wandered the halls, eyes wide and smiles wider, admiring the airy, vaulted citadel that was built to achieve a LEED platinum rating with daylighting, wood-based thermal energy system and other sustainable features. The 135,000-square-foot school has room to grow to 1,000 students.

It came alive when some of the 580 students who will begin school there on Sept. 4 rushed in after the ribbon-cutting, ran up the steps, roamed the hallways and looked through the rows of lockers. Finally, real lockers for high-schoolers who had lost them to the flood five years ago.

"It's a very cool day," said Dan Brown, a community leader and owner of the Grey Dawn Gallery in town.

For a town used to getting media coverage only for its several natural disasters, it was a moment in the sun as the press from Portland and the surrounding area showed up in force to cover the event. Everyone was happy to be quoted about the gleaming school.

The town turned out in force along with those officials who helped get the school built, including Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Jeff Merkley, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, former Gov. Ted Kulongoski, Ford Family Foundation CEO Norm Smith, state Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, Secretary of State Kate Brown, Oregon Senate president Peter Courtney, Columbia County Commissioner Tony Hyde, Neil Kelly CEO Tom Kelly, and new state education czar Rudy Crew.

But it was Sen. Betsy Johnson from Scappoose who got the longest, loudest applause and the standing ovation. Johnson was crying before she made it to the microphone, calling Vernonia a "gritty little don't-take-no-for-an-answer town” that would not call it quits, passed a local taxing bond to help finance the school and then with a large coalition of the willing, proceeded to make the school a reality. School superintendent Ken Cox called the school “a story of faith.”

There is still a $3 million funding gap for the school, which was borrowed to get the school open on Sept. 4. "But it's not $3 million, it's $5 million to $6 million," says Hyde, ticking off a list of things that still need to be built such as the art center, a wood and metal shop, a football field. “There is still much to get done.”

With the adults were blabbing on about FEMA and ODOT and bond funding and the future, they were seriously missing the truly best thing about the new school. Said ninth-grader Breanna Gardner: "People won't make fun of us anymore when they come to our games."

Robin Doussard is the editor-in-chief of Oregon Business. To read her October 2011 cover story about Vernonia, "Build a school, save a town," click here.

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