Bond money has been well spent in this school.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP - Brian Libby, architecture criticIt’s a sunny, early-fall day at Roosevelt High School in St. Johns, and despite the continuing mix of students and construction workers as renovation work continues, there seems to be a sense of optimism in the air.

As one of three local high schools being modernized as part of a $482 million bond passed in 2012, Roosevelt has a new wing open this fall (designed by Seattle firm Bassetti Architects) that includes a welcoming two-story entry commons, a new gymnasium for the Rough Riders basketball team, facilities for arts and high-tech learning, and a community center serving needy students with a health clinic, food pantry and counseling center. Inside the new Roosevelt classrooms I visited, there was also enough natural illumination (which, studies show raises students’ average test scores) that all of the electric lights were turned off.

What’s great here is not necessarily architectural beauty — the new wing looks a bit monolithic — so much as terrific functionality. Besides, the beautiful original 1921 building is also being renovated in a symbolic fusion of past and future.

What was once a decaying educational outpost is now a model of 21st century learning. You might say Roosevelt has brought us a New Deal for Portland schools.

The school is also a lot safer. With just over a year gone by since Oregonians awakened (via a Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker magazine article) to the very real threat of a massive earthquake, the need to prepare our most vulnerable and civically significant structures has never been greater.

COURTESY: PORTLAND PUBLIC SCHOOLS - Roosevelt High School in St Johns has been well renovated.

Most likely to collapse in a quake are buildings constructed with unreinforced masonry, including many public schools like Roosevelt and Franklin, two of the first to be renovated. But there is a gigantic backlog of K-12 schools needing attention.

Which is why local high school students staged a walkout from class earlier this month, protesting Portland Public Schools’ decision (by a 4-3 board re-vote after an initial 6-1 tally) to delay the next big school-modernization bond.

It had been set to appear on this November’s ballot, but after PPS was forced to address the discovery of elevated lead levels in many schools’ drinking water, preparations for the modernization plan, and thus the language of the bond, fell behind.

Perhaps the delay is prudent — PPS can’t ask for half a billion dollars now and decide how to spend it later — but it’s also a dangerous one, because bonds in presidential election years tend to pass more often. Suddenly this New Deal could be undone.

There are many timely funding needs today, from homelessness and affordable housing to infrastructure and transit, all of which must be balanced against concerns of over-burdening taxpayers.

Yet given the intertwining benefits of seismic stabilization, historic preservation and improved learning environments, you don’t have to visit Roosevelt High’s combination of thriving school and ongoing construction site to see what a good and necessary investment the PPS modernization plan is.

And walking amongst these Roosevelt Rough Rider students, I can’t help but wonder if at times there’s something to be said for making a leap.

Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell, among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or online at:

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