To step into the oldest part of Oakdale Elementary is to step into the Westside Community Schools’ past.
According to a district history, the original Oakdale schoolhouse dates to 1871. Oakdale and two other rural districts merged in 1947 to form Westside.
In the decades since, the school has seen a half-dozen additions and renovations. The old section now houses fourth grade, early childhood classrooms and the old music room with its vaulted ceiling and distinctive cupola.
Despite that work and ongoing maintenance, however, the building is showing its age. Cracks vein the plaster above one fourth-grade classroom door. Energy-inefficient single-pane windows remain in some rooms and hallways. Water damage from a past leak stains the main electrical panel.
The district is asking voters to approve a $79.9 million bond issue that officials say would make major progress toward moving Oakdale and other elementary and middle school buildings — most built in the 1950s and early ’60s — into the future.
The proposed measure the school board approved in March is intended to raise funds to make improvements at all 10 elementary buildings and at Westside Middle School.
Much of the work would bring entrance security, storm shelters and mechanical systems — plumbing, electrical, and heating and cooling — up to modern standards. During recent tornado drills, students at Oakdale and at least one other elementary building sheltered in basement boiler rooms. In Omaha, new schools must be built with hardened shelters.
At the same time, the boilers in a number of those schools, including Oakdale, have outlived their normal life expectancy, district officials say, and replacement parts have become hard to find.
While security systems at schools’ front entrances now require visitors to buzz in, main offices in a number of buildings are situated some distance from and out of sight of the front door. New and remodeled schools typically come with secure vestibules, some of which require visitors to enter through the office after the school day starts.
At Oakdale, Swanson and Sunset Hills, modernizing most likely would mean replacing existing buildings with new structures. However, the detailed design work needed to finalize those decisions wouldn’t be undertaken until a bond issue could pay for it.
Superintendent Blane McCann said the work in the current bond proposal would be completed over the next half-dozen years. The proposal itself is part of a 15-year facilities master plan. One goal is to make sure the district doesn’t have all its buildings due for work at the same time decades into the future.
That’s one reason for budgeting to replace three buildings. Building new would essentially reset the clock for another 60-plus years. “You get a longer-term solution by doing some building replacement,” he said.
The 15-year plan lays out two additional phases of work that would require two additional bond issues. Although costs haven’t been set, both would be significantly smaller than the current request.
McCann said the district would seek input from the community in designing new buildings so they fit into their neighborhoods.
A new Sunset Hills would be built near the existing school and add another section of each grade. It currently has only one of each.
McCann said the added space would allow the district to adjust for growth. A demographic study indicated that the district is gaining students — not from outside, through open enrollment, but from families living within its boundaries, particularly around the edges.
Oakdale and Swanson, according to the proposal, would be rebuilt roughly on their current footprints.
Some Swanson-area residents opposed an earlier option that called for rebuilding on green space below the current school. At a recent informational meeting at the school, board member David Williams said he would stand by the plan to rebuild the school in its current location.
“We heard from the community,” he said.
At Oakdale, McCann said, the district would seek to preserve some of the historic elements that are important to residents. One option might be to move the old section of the building back from the frontage road paralleling West Center Road. It sits so close that it would be difficult to fit in better parking and drop-off zones.
Rosie Zweiback, president of Westside’s school board, said the district has made upgrades to its buildings as opportunities have arisen.
The district put much of the roughly $7.25 million it netted from the sale of low-interest federal bonds in 2010 toward projects such as restroom remodeling, flooring, and heating and cooling at elementary and middle schools. The district also paid for some security upgrades with those bonds and with federal community policing grants.
Westside sought its last bond issue in 1997. That $27.7 million measure funded the renovation of Westside High School. A decade later, the economy had shifted, and conditions were not conducive to a bond issue.
McCann said schools tend to put their money toward educational programs. Many districts, in Nebraska and across the country, have come up against spending limits that have made it difficult to carry out larger projects. Locally, school districts also have faced uncertainty over state school aid and the “one city, one school district” boundary fight, which began in 2005.
Zweiback said the economy now is stronger, and interest rates are at record lows. Putting money into schools, she said, means investing in neighborhoods, which attracts new families and maintains property values.
“This is our time,” she said.
McCann said he has not heard anyone argue against the needs of the district’s buildings.
In addition to basic safety, security and mechanical systems, those needs include improved special-education spaces and better access for the disabled.
Oakdale and Swanson, for example, include several elevation changes. Oakdale added a stair lift last year to allow the disabled access to the lower level.
At Swanson, which has some portable classrooms, pipes are suspended below ceilings in some areas, some hallways are narrow and the air conditioning condenser is at the end of its life.
John Hughes, a Westside parent who served on the task force that helped craft the facilities plan, said he never really noticed the building’s lacks during the years his children attended Swanson.
Now that they’re in high school and college, he has looked more objectively. “You think ‘We really need to do something about this,’ ” he said.
The district is looking for energy-efficiency gains, both in lighting and in heating and cooling. It already has begun tracking energy use. McCann said he’s confident that the district will see six-figure savings even with added square footage.
“We’re just at a point where they’re worn out,” he said.
Today: 9:30 a.m. Paddock Road Elementary; 6 p.m. Rockbrook Elementary
Tuesday: 2 p.m. Westbrook Elementary
Wednesday: 9 a.m. Westside Middle School; 4 p.m. Westside High School
Thursday: 6:30 p.m. Prairie Lane Elementary
Friday: 11 a.m. Westgate Elementary
April 14: 6:30 p.m. Loveland Elementary
April 15: 1:30 p.m. Sunset Hills Elementary
April 16: 8 a.m. Oakdale Elementary
April 20: 9 a.m. Westside Community Conference Center
Contact the writer: 402-444-1223, firstname.lastname@example.org