Ogden's Polk school at heart of debate over $106.5 million bond proposal

Wednesday , November 01, 2017 - 5:15 AM7 comments

TIM VANDENACK, Standard-Examiner Staff

OGDEN — Poking around Polk Elementary, Jer Bates, spokesman for the Ogden School District, didn’t have to look hard to find deficiencies in the old building.

“You can see where the brick is already starting to crumble,” he said outside the school’s main entrance on Ogden’s East Bench, pointing to sections of the brick exterior where mortar is missing. Inside, he pointed to new ceiling tiles in two rooms, necessitated by a leaky roof, and a new section of wood flooring in the gym, replaced after a steam heat register sprung a leak.

The school, originally built in 1926, has its flaws, brought on by age and deterioration. The problems are enough that district officials want to rebuild and expand Polk along with two other elementary schools that face similar age-related issues, T.O. Smith, built in 1956, and Horace Mann, built in 1954. The three project proposals, costing roughly $25 million each, are key elements of a proposed $106.5 million bond issue before Ogden voters that’s the focus of ongoing mail-in balloting.

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Even so, the Polk plans, in particular, have drawn fire from some, threatening to derail or delay the bond proposal and allocation of funds to pursue the upgrades. It’s not that Polk doesn’t need work, the critics say. It’s that the Polk proposal didn’t get enough public vetting ahead of time, that officials haven’t sufficiently considered the possibility of renovating the school, that if enlarged, the bigger school will lose its personal touch and students will suffer.

RELATED: Ogden School Board officially picks Polk Elementary for rebuild if bond passes

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“We just don’t like the process they’ve gone through and the way they’ve done it,” said Dustin Chapman, spokesman for a grassroots group formed in opposition to the bond plans, Ogden Education. School officials publicly unveiled the proposal to rebuild Polk — the last element of the bond to be revealed — on Sept. 19, just seven weeks ahead of Election Day, Nov. 7, which marks the end of balloting.

Ogden schools need work and group members aren’t necessarily opposed to the notion of a bond or upgrading Polk. It’s just that the $106.5 million proposal, in their estimation, isn’t the answer, at least as put forward. They’d like to slow the process, take a closer look at the issues and allow for more input and deliberation in crafting a bond plan.

“Let’s pin down some more details. Let’s talk about the process a little more,” said Chapman. In the past two weeks, signs reading “Save Polk/Vote no!” and “Save small schools/Vote no!” have popped up in the yards of his group’s backers, a counterpoint to bond proponents’ “Build our future/Vote yes” signs.

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In response, school officials said last week that they’re open to the notion of renovating Polk and maintaining its distinctive flourishes should the bond pass, though preserving the school’s oldest sections would add around $5 million to the $25 million rebuild. Ogden Education members, responding to that, expressed skepticism, though, saying the school district still offers no guarantees that Polk won’t be torn down.

Meantime, Polk, Horace Mann and T.O. Smith need work, though officials say they’ll muster the resources to maintain the structures, if not rebuild them, should the bond fail.

Earthquakes, heating, intruders

Specific problems at the three schools that would be rebuilt vary.

But common aims include making them all better able to withstand earthquakes, improving classroom layout, enhancing broadband and power access, upgrading heating and cooling systems and better safeguarding the schools against intruders, Bates said.

RELATED: More details emerge regarding Ogden elementary school rebuilds

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Back at Polk, Bates pointed out the building’s deficiencies, accompanied by Steve Torman, facilities and operations supervisor for the school district.  An independent engineering firm contracted by the school district determined that Polk, like several other schools in the Ogden district, is in “poor” condition.

“All around the building there are spots where it’s really bad,” said Bates, who’s unaware of any strong backlash against the T.O. Smith and Horace Mann elements of the bond proposal.

Among the issues at Polk that he and Torman pointed out:

  • Walls insufficiently attached to roofs and/or made of brittle materials like clay tile, making the school more susceptible to collapses in an earthquake;
  • Leaks in scattered locations, resulting in periodic roof and ceiling deterioration;
  • Lack of conduits to carry broadband cables, requiring drilling of solid walls and use of drainage pipes, among other things, to hold wiring;
  • Placement of a server rack in a copy room, not a climate-controlled space;
  • Squeaky wooden floors that can disrupt classrooms underneath; and
  • Lack of a fire sprinkler system.

Taken alone, the individual defects wouldn’t necessarily be overwhelming burdens. But taken together, the many issues necessitate frequent fixes, Torman said. “Everything all combined, it’s just a major expense,” he said.

Bates said the distinctive elements of Polk could be retained in a new building. The rendering for the rebuilt Polk, as put forward by district officials, shows a brick structure, complemented by tan-colored trim, similar to the current school.

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‘In a dark place’

The criticism from the Polk defenders isn’t solely related to the potential loss of the school’s distinctive design.

School officials also propose making a bigger school that would house more students and also cover the area now served by Taylor Canyon School, which would eventually close. The bond foes worry kids would be lost in a larger school, though district officials stay student-teacher ratios would hold steady and the bigger size would preclude the need for use of the portable structures that many Ogden schools rely on.

More generally, Jeffrey Heiner, president of the district’s school board and a bond proponent, senses unease and wariness.

“We want to be a good community partner. The feeling of distrust is really confounding to me,” he said in a meeting with the Standard-Examiner editorial board. The controversy, he continued, is “hurting friendships. Some people are even in a dark place because of it.”

Looking back, school officials could have perhaps handled the process differently, said Heiner, accompanied by Superintendent Rich Nye. Still, there are risks and the potential for controversy no matter the direction school officials go.

Nye said the process doesn’t end, regardless of the outcome on the bond vote. If it fails, officials may regroup and take another go at it. At the very least, they’ll do what’s needed to keep Polk, T.O. Smith and Horace Mann running, tapping existing resources.

If the bond succeeeds, discussions about the details of rebuilding Polk will continue. “To me, it’s an investment in the community,” Nye said.

Contact reporter Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@standard.net, follow him on Twitter at @timvandenack or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/timvandenackreporter.

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