HERMISTON - Armand Larive is a school on the way out - if you listen, you can almost hear its last gasp.

A group of about 40 community members toured the building Thursday evening and then heard Hermiston Superintendent Fred Maiocco and Assistant Superintendent Wade Smith lay out possible options for a district that faces daunting challenges and is considering spending $90 million on new construction and upgrades.

But first, the tour. The district's facilities director, Brian Romeike, led the way, clutching a flashlight.

The entire south side of the 87,850-square-foot building slopes at an ominous angle, Romeike said, as he gestured toward a staff lounge. A ball set gently onto the carpet in the lounge would roll, gathering momentum until it hit the opposite wall.

In the basement, Romeike led the group into a dungeon-like area he called the Sand Tunnel. As his charges stared at a mass of pipes and ducts, he pointed at a retaining wall that leans at a precarious angle.

"This retaining wall is nowhere near up to any building standards," he said. "The whole wall is shifting to the south."

Outside, by the walkway that leads to the school's main door, hip-high cement blocks jutted out from the building. Added in 1990, their sole purpose was to stop the front wall from shifting.

"These are anchors - tons and tons of concrete," Smith said. "They are there to secure the structure."

A pole set vertically into the lawn next to the front wall shows how out-of-plumb the building is.

During the tour, Romeike pointed out design problems. Cafeteria flooring must be replaced regularly because moisture from showers in the locker room directly below seeps through. A tiny kitchen nearby is poorly ventilated and temperatures often reach 85-90 degrees during the lunch hour.

Shifting, sagging and settling led to cracks throughout the building. Ancient plumbing is set into concrete. Electrical wiring, according to an engineering report, needs to be replaced.

"The heart and soul of schools is the kids," Maiocco said. "There's great instruction happening in this building.

But?

"This is a World War II-era building - it's served its purpose," he said.

Three other schools in the district and an aging fleet of 10 modular classrooms that houses more than 300 students are also deteriorating, Maiocco said.

"We have about a school's worth of kids stuffed into modular classrooms," Maiocco said.

The facilities issues plus the expected addition of 1,000 students in the next decade led a facilities planning committee to recommend a $90-million fix. The money would pay to replace Armand Larive and three elementary schools - Rocky Heights, Sunset and West Park - and build one extra elementary school to house students now in modulars.

"Ninety million dollars is a scary number," Maiocco admitted to the group.

However, Maiocco said, the plan is by no means set in concrete. A blue ribbon panel of 15 community members will hash over various options, scrutinizing data from a Portland State University population study and an engineering report commissioned by the district. The committee, a mix of people involved in agriculture, business, government and other segments of the community, will take a couple months to make a recommendation to the school board.

Smith said it will cost about $210 per square foot to replace each elementary school - much more than the price tag to build Desert View Elementary in 2001. That year, it cost about $109 per square foot.

"The cost to build a school has about doubled," Smith said.

But the news isn't all bad. In 1999, Hermiston residents passed a bond measure to build Hermiston High School and Desert View at $2.42 per $1,000 of assessed value. Now, he estimated, the impact would be about $1.64 per $1,000.

"Obviously, the tax base of Hermiston has grown over the last eight years," he said.

Additional forums and tours are scheduled for Nov. 15 at Sunset Elementary and Jan. 17 at West Park Elementary.

The public feedback is positive, the Hermiston School Board may float a bond request in November 2008.

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