Cannon Shots: Communities need ‘skin in the game’

Sen. Betsy Johnson speaking before members of the Seaside Downtown Development Association July 9.

One aspect of the tsunami threat is undeniable. Kids in our schools are at risk. The Oregon Coast can anticipate an earthquake offshore will generate a tsunami similar to the March 2011 earthquake in Japan. The Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries — DOGAMI, rhymes with “tsunami” — offers inundation maps that show whole “downtown areas of Cannon Beach and Seaside as being prone to complete inundation.”

Last month Seaside School District Superintendent Doug Dougherty said the district is considering a new bond to move Seaside schools — Broadway Middle School, Seaside High School and Gearheart Elementary School — to safer ground. It was tried in 2013 to the tune of $128.8 million, and soundly defeated by voters. The physical threat remains the catalyst: “There are four schools along the Oregon Coast in the inundation zone, and we have three of those,” Dougherty said. “Our goal is to have students out of every one of these schools as soon as possible.”

Dougherty said he expects a bond to be presented within a year and a half or later, because the economy here “has not fully bounced back.” In addition, the district still has to pass a local option levy in November to maintain staffing levels. Since two initiatives, one to replace school buildings and one to maintain staffing, are unlikely to pass in one year, the clock will have to wait on needed safety measures, or “physical retrofits,” as government officials call them.

Same issue, new bond, only three years later? Sell that to voters. Many Cannon Beach residents are still miffed at the way Cannon Beach Elementary School was shuttered.

Before all the horses and all the king’s men have to put Humpty-Dumpty together again, citizens, civic leaders and government officials of good faith must work together so the next bond won’t be a failure. Planning should begin now.

At a breakfast meeting of the Seaside Downtown Development Association July 9, state Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scapoose, responded to an audience member who asked how the district could replace Seaside’s schools without breaking taxpayers’ backs.

“We need to move our high school and middle school up to a safer location,” Johnson said. “On the face, it seems so simple: Get our kids out of danger. But it is actually a very complex question.

“Part of the problem is, it’s not as easy as ‘let’s move the school,’” Johnson said. “Seaside has a two-part whammy. When your last bond failed so dramatically, you didn’t have property or site control, and the site you chose created additional costs in the architectural requirements because it was odd terrain. You have to figure out how to get ownership of the land.”

Land-use architecture, urban growth boundaries and site location are critical to provide options for school siting, Johnson said, all of which require a “breathtaking amount of money.”

Johnson has been through this process before, after flooding in 2007 destroyed three schools in Vernonia.

“A lesson I learned from rebuilding three schools in Vernonia after a natural disaster: The community has to have skin in the game,” Johnson said. “It can’t just be, ‘Let’s go to the state and get them to pay for it.’ First, we can’t. It cost us $40 million to rebuild three schools in Vernonia. The costs are so dramatic.”

The urgency is growing, and will shape policy in Salem not just in terms of natural disaster funding in our region, but through every future capital project.

“It was actually the presence of Seaside and some other coastal schools in the tsunami zone that caused me to be so adamantly opposed to the Senate president’s pet project of rebuilding the Capitol building, to the tune of $350 million,” Johnson said. “When he was in trying to break our arms to get us to vote for that, I said, ‘I cannot, Mr. President, go back to my coastal communities with any modicum of integrity and look parents in the eye and say, “I took care of a box full of politicians before I took care of a box full of kids.”’ That was not what he wanted to hear.”

There is some hope in Salem as legislators show a growing awareness of the threat and its immediacy. The Senate considered two bills this year to address seismic dangers.

State Senate Bill 778 gave the state’s geological arm, the Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, DOGAMI, the power to require mitigation measures for buildings, with the aim of reducing risk to the public. What legislators didn’t like and why the bill ultimately failed was the bill would also give DOGAMI the power to block development if it decided a building could not be made safe. “Nobody wanted DOGAMI to be in charge of anything,” Johnson said, citing a history of bad management and overreach by the agency.

While that measure failed, the Senate did pass Bill 447, with $125 million that will allow schools in certain situations to apply to the state to move certain facilities or allow schools to apply for seismic retrofits.

The bill establishes grant program to provide matching fund grants to school districts for capital costs of school districts. Johnson calls it a “pathway” to upgrades in Seaside and Cannon Beach.

According to Johnson, the rules for implementation have not been determined. The bill is currently awaiting the governor’s signature.

Whether or not Superintendent Dougherty can use the proposed state funds remains to be seen, but money was made available, Johnson said.

Clearly any steps in the future will require a coalition of local, state and federal entities. Whether the school district and its voters have the stomach to approach this again after only three years remains to be seen. The cities may also look to include other stakeholders including educational foundations and environmental organizations when developing a potential site. Any new building effort will require not only school board, city and state participation, but grassroots support and a capital commitment on the part of our communities.

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