Editorial: Nice — but expensive — idea

Published Jun 29, 2014 at 12:01AM

Bend Mayor Jim Clinton thinks it would be dandy if Bend-La Pine Schools could put new schools within walking distance of those who use them. We agree. But …

Clinton’s idea is likely to prove unworkable, if for no other reason than it would drive the cost of new schools to unacceptable levels.

Schools require big spaces. The Bend-La Pine district recently purchased 11 acres for its newest elementary school at a cost of $208,000 per acre. It paid far less per acre — between $100,000 and $108,000 — for the 35 acres needed for its new middle school. High schools, meanwhile, can eat up 40 or more acres.

There are solid reasons for the wide range in prices for the district’s two most recent purchases, says Andy High, school board member and vice president of government affairs for the Central Oregon Builders Association.

Location was one factor. The elementary school is going up south of Reed Market Road inside the city’s urban growth boundary. Land outside that boundary, as the middle school property is, is less expensive, High says.

Too, the district will not be required to add roads or bring utilities to the elementary school site, as it must for the middle school. That will drive the final per-acre cost of the middle school property higher than it seems at first glance.

Land prices are not the only consideration, either. Smaller schools could get by on less, but it would take more nonteaching staff to run them adequately. Two schools with 300 students each would require two principals and two sets of support staff. And while the district might save some money on busing, the state already covers most of that cost.

It would be nice if most kids in Bend could walk to school, but that hasn’t been a reality since at least 1980, when Buckingham Elementary opened its doors well away from the city’s population center. Meanwhile, Bend-La Pine Schools officials do work to balance distance and costs. It’s difficult to see how they could reasonably be expected to do more than that and argue they’re making the best use of taxpayer dollars at the same time.