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School district will cover full cost after city of St. Helens denies request to contribute funding

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL-PACHECO - Construction continues on the new, bond-funded St. Helens School District Middle School building. The school is slated to have a track and turf field installed later this year after the old building is demolished.The St. Helens School District is planning to install turf fields at the new St. Helens Middle School, but the district will have to solely cover the expense after the city of St. Helens declined to help financially.

In mid-July, St. Helens Superintendent Scot Stockwell and board member Bill Amos approached the St. Helens City Council to request a financial contribution from the city to help fund construction of a turf field at the new school site.

The overall cost of the field would be around $500,000, Stockwell explained, which includes roughly $150,000 to install the subgrade and drainage, $30,000 in engineering costs, and $320,000 for the field itself.

Last year, the school district and the city partnered together to establish an afterschool recreation program that could offer programs for students and adults throughout the community. The two entities also have an intergovernmental agreement in place to make the program function, and Stockwell said requesting financial support from the city seemed like a better use of public dollars than each entity trying to pay for a new turf field on its own.

"If we're already doing that prep work on the ground, it seemed reasonable to go to the city to say, "Hey, we're working together to develop a rec program to serve our community. Let's partner with this and put in a good turf field,'" Stockwell said.

During discussions in mid-July, the City Council told school officials it would need time to think about the request and review the city budget. During those initial discussions, City Administrator John Walsh pitched the idea of collecting a fee in conjunction with the recreation program fee to help support the request, but the idea ultimately didn't pan out.

Having a turf field at the middle school will not only provide a long-lasting field for athletics, but it also addresses an equity issue in the school district, Stockwell explained during the council meeting in July.

"You go to another community and most of them have multiple turf fields and there's different play on those fields. They're a little bit faster and a little bit safer, and it gives kids in our community something to be proud of," Stockwell said.

Additionally, contractors would need to complete some of the same preparation work to install a traditional grass field as they would for a turf field, anyway, Stockwell added.

In early August, St. Helens Mayor Rick Scholl noted that the city did not have the surplus finances to contribute to the project and would not be able to contribute the requested $500,000.

"We tried looking at any numbers we could," Scholl said, adding that the city has its own budget that it needs to balance.

While construction costs for the new St. Helens Middle School have come in under budget, leaving between $5.5 million and $6 million of bond-funds from a 2016 voter-approved bond to help pay for safety improvements at the high school, Stockwell said every dollar that goes into the field at the middle school takes away from what can be done the high school.

While the remaining funds will address some needed upgrades and safety measures at the high school, the district is also considering asking voters to weigh in on a potential $65 million bond to invest in a remodel and update of the high school building on the November ballot.

The goals of the remodel would be to modernize the building, convert unusable education space, expand gyms and locker rooms, update air quality and roofing, and install security features and other improvements.

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