An entire school district must be rebuilt

The December 2007 flood hit Vernonia’s schools hard. All of the buildings were filled with tainted water from the nearby sewage facility. For more than four years after the flood, nearly 700 students in the district were displaced into nearby minimally repaired buildings and old modular classrooms that were still located in the floodplain and vulnerable each winter to another flood.

Like many rural towns, Vernonia’s schools are the heart and soul of its community. Strong schools are naturally vital to Vernonia’s economic stability, not only as the community’s largest employer, but also by making it possible for businesses and families to choose to stay in or to move to Vernonia. Additionally, as the only large gathering place in the city, the school serves as the town’s community center.

Recognizing the importance of the task at hand, Oregonians and the nation are stepping up to provide assistance and help raise the $40 million dollars needed to replace Vernonia’s schools and community center. Residents and school administrators knew from the beginning–with a deadline of Fall 2012 to begin tearing down the old schools and the unprecedented need to fund construction of an entire K-12 district–that they would have to secure a combination of funding and bridge financing to open the schools on time.

With support from leaders from across Oregon, the Vernonia School District secured more than $35 million in funding. This includes a $13 million bond that Vernonia residents approved in 2009, despite the recession and the community’s other flood-related expenses and challenges. The district secured a FEMA waiver bringing in an additional $11 million, and then completed a $1 million challenge grant from The Ford Family Foundation with gifts from businesses, foundations and individuals from across Oregon. The school district has also been successful in securing $5.6 million in long term, low interest bridge financing.

The school welcomed its first students in the fall of 2012 at a ceremony attended by local residents, federal and state officials, and business and philanthropic leaders from all corners of the state. Although the school is open and classes are in session, more work needs to be done to top off the campaign and complete the vision.