What a strange journey - the story of our move (so far)
Just a bit of background - I joined the Howard Street team right in the beginning, Aug 1997. I had just completed my student teaching experience at South Salem High School and needed a full time job so I taught Spanish at South High in the morning and at Howard Street in the afternoon. After a few months, I knew Howard Street and middle school was where I should be. Now over two decades later, I have never regretted that decision.
2016-17 marked the fifth charter renewal process but the first one that I was directly in the room for negotiations and conversations with the district. By the end of the process, we knew we were going to receive less funding - we didn’t really have a choice there - and we were likely going to have to find a new location for 2022. However, in June 2017, we received our two year notice that we would have to move. One change was hard; two seemed near impossible. So I spent summer 2017 with a fantastic real estate lady, Jennifer Martin, finding possible locations that fit my vision of Howard Street’s future. The Howard Street Board was and is very supportive of my ideas and I have lived the charter since its inception so I had a pretty specific goal. If we really want to live the charter vision of being a school of all of Salem-Keizer than we have to be centrally located - we had to be downtown. I also wanted to own our own location - no more leaving our facilities in the hands of others. So own a building downtown, simple, right?
Thus began the quest of Summer 2017 and with the help of Ms. Martin and various board and staff members, we explored buildings - a lot of buildings and possibilities. You would be surprised at the number of larger spaces that were empty or could be renovated in downtown, but it soon became obvious the real obstacle here was money. I was sure that it would cost a couple million at least and I was not real sure how we could possibly pay for that without help, so in the Fall 2017, the Board and I began to research capital campaigns - one time big money raising and found that once again, we as a charter school reside in a strange hybrid realm. While we are a non-profit 501c3 like all non-profits, we do not qualify for many non-profit opportunities because we are a single school. Many large grants and foundations do not fund individual school projects, nor is our demographics considered ‘at-risk’ enough to qualify for many education grants. Then we met with other notable fundraisers in our area and found that the competition was steep and that Salem is a tough city to raise funds in. The same larger philanthropic donors are asked for money again and again and they can only support so many causes. And wow! what a lot of causes there are in Salem-Keizer (like everywhere really) but there are many organizations seeking funds for very worth projects. Our school of 180 students could hardly compare.
While struggling to find a financial direction forward, Ms. Martin stumbled across an opportunity - 625 Marion NE, the old Oregon Department of Energy had been sitting empty for more than a year now. The owners, the First Christian Church who reside on the same block, had been looking to lease it. We reached out to see if they would meet with us and what a great group of people. They were willing to listen to why we wanted to buy - our need to control some of our own destiny after having to move after two decades in the Annex. With their help, we reached a middle ground. Howard Street would buy the building giving us the control we sought to shape our space and we would lease the ground from the Church for 30 years plus two additional ten year periods if we maintain solid financial standing and wish to renew. 50 years! I will only be principal for the next 20-25 of those but what a great opportunity that met my initial goals. In addition, we would have manage the parking lots from 6am-6pm daily and be able to get the income from the parking spaces to cover the cost of the ground lease. The Church would retain ownership of the land, get use of the parking lot in the evenings and weekends when they need it and we would have our first step towards a new home.
Okay, so destination acquired but could it even be a school. Thus started the next phase - architects and general contractors. In Spring 2018, we sent our requests for proposals. I had been doing my research and was interested in the design-build idea in which Howard Street, architect and contractor would work cooperatively to create a space. Bringing the general contractor in early to this process helps everyone know the design and the ideas behind. We had great interviews from local companies who really saw this as an opportunity to help our school and our community. In the end, we select AC&Co and Rich Duncan Construction and they have been superior partners ever since. Both have really looked out for us by teaching me the process, answering my silly questions (I am a teacher after all so I ask A LOT of questions), telling me what we really need and what we could need. Overall, I feel like this project would only be possible because they both want this to work for us. What a gift! Another set of allies on our journey.
With the help of AC&CO and Rich Duncan Construction, it was clear 625 Marion NE was the best choice for us in terms of build-ability. What I mean is the interior is essential an open floor plan with a mezzanine on the east end. But one of the key hurdles that added substantial cost to the project is safety upgrades - namely seismic and a new fire line. Because we are a school, we have to update the building to meet current standards. These costs are about 1/3 of the project overall. Which brings us to the last leg of the journey, paying for it. How in the world can we do that? We cannot raise enough more through fundraising, nor can we borrow that much based on our non-profit status with no debt history.
I would be lying, dear reader, if I have not been in tears over this project. There are times when it all seemed so insurmountable, that I was 80% certain that 2018-19 would be that last year of Howard Street. Standing in front of the Salem-Keizer Board, listening to what was said about my beloved school, my passion project, my adult life’s work, was difficult. What do you do when others try to tear down what you have worked so hard to build? What do you do when the odds and the politics oppose you? Well…..you rise.
It is no accident that our mascot is the phoenix, legendary singular bird of world mythologies that rises from its own ashes to begin again. It is immortal in its own unique way - it falls only to rise again as glorious and strong as before. And so like our mascot with a lot of red-headed stubbornness, you keep looking. You surround yourself with positive voices and you keep looking for solutions. Thus, by accident or maybe a hint of fate, I stumbled on an article about the Redmond Proficiency Academy, a fellow charter school. Redmond, Oregon is where I went to high school and I keep up on my Central Oregon news every once in awhile and the article spoke of their funds through the Oregon Facilities Authority (OFA). What is OFA you are asking? I asked the same thing and found out they are a part of the Oregon State Treasury Department and that they help non-profits acquire financing through low-cost bonds that are sold to investors. The OFA receives no public money and uses its fees to help non-profits state wide. In fact, Howard Street will be the third charter school in Oregon to partner with OFA to renovate and purchase facilities. We had found our way forward to finance the school!
So with the help of more allies, financial advisor David Robertson who helped with other OFA financing, and Nick Hagen of Piper Jaffray, a group of investors who fund charter school projects nationwide, we are have an application in to Oregon Facilities Authority. The group at OFA and the State Treasury including all of the lawyers involved have been very helpful in making this process possible. I have spent spring break filling out information and documents all about Howard Street. It has been like a 20 year retrospective for me finding paperwork from the very first years of the school and all the years in-between. It is like the journey has come full circle and I am back to the first year of the school, but this time I am at the helm. Teaching principal Joni Gilles taught all of us the first year how to just keep moving forward when obstacles were in the path, a lesson I have lived this new space journey.
April 8 at 1pm Howard Street has its presentation to the OFA Board for final financing approval. I believe at this moment it will go well and that we will then enter the next phase - construction.
Here is to the next step on this strange journey! ~CTracy