Hilltop remodeling plan said to resemble popular restoration in Aberdeen

McDermoth Elementary School Principal Jim Sawin stands in a staircase inside his Aberdeen school, the only place in the school that wasn't removed during a remodel of the building. The school's problems closely parallel those of Hilltop Elementary School in Ilwaco. DAMAIN MULINIX photo

Similar building, same situation

ABERDEEN - A historic old school building sitting on top of a hill in a port town is in dire need of remodeling relief. Sound familiar?

McDermoth Elementary School in Aberdeen faced the same situation that now faces Hilltop Elementary School in Ilwaco - a need for help. The only difference right now is that McDermoth got what it needed and Hilltop waits to see whether funding can be generated in order to correct longstanding problems at the aging school.

On Feb. 4, 1997, the voters of Aberdeen passed a $7.9 million bond to remodel the inside of McDermoth, a school built in 1930. Like here, the people of Aberdeen wanted to keep the historic building, but fix the inside. The Aberdeen School District hired an architectural firm called BJSS Duarte Bryant to try and make that happen. BJSS is the same firm recently hired by the Ocean Beach School District as the architects to draw plans for remodeling Hilltop.

BJSS operates from its offices in Seattle and Olympia and they have a long list of notable projects on their resume, including several new buildings on the University of Washington campus and the new Washington State Department of Corrections Reformatory. They also did the design for the newly remodeled junior/senior high school in Raymond.

"From what I've seen, they've done an outstanding job," said Raymond High Principal Mark Jones. The Raymond remodel consisted of a two-year process that, like McDermoth, had some new construction added to the old building while remodeling the rest.

Support for old school

Jim Sawin has been the principal at McDermoth for 10 years and saw their project through some initial birthing pains - it took three tries before the bond passed. One of the sticking points initially was that the community wanted to keep the existing building.

"It became very clear, talking with people in the community, they weren't going to support this building at a new site," said Sawin.

At that point Sawin said it really became the architects' job to figure out if the school could get everything through a remodel that it could get from a new facility. And Sawin said it started to look as if it could, and added that the community had always supported the project, particularly because it was going to be a remodel.

"This building is considered by the people in town as, 'the historical building' in Aberdeen for elementary schools," said Sawin. "It's a beautiful building out front. On the back side it was not. It didn't look very nice - it was terrible in fact."

According to Sawin, when the building was rated prior to the bond passing it was an 18, on a scale of one to 100. This low rating was based on the fact that all the walls weren't reinforced masonry and the only bathrooms in the building were in the basement. This was for a total of 450 students. He went on to say that the only real improvement work to be done since the building's inception was the replacement of the original windows with insulated ones.

Once the bond passed and the work began on the remodel, Sawin found the people of BJSS to be very helpful in the whole process.

"They had to pretty much work with the existing footprint," said Sawin.

At that time, Sawin said the school's halls were downsized and on the west side of the building classrooms made longer. He said the idea was simply to get more classroom space, which was accomplished and resulted with rooms that went from 580 to 720 square feet.

According to Sawin the lack of classroom space also tied in with lack of storage space. He cited one year when the school had 13 saxophone players in a music program and no place for them to put their instruments.

"We just had 13 saxophones piled up all over everywhere," said Sawin. "It was horrible."

Sawin said the nice part about the remodel, which he always finds attractive, is the fact that the school now stands out as unique compared to other Aberdeen schools in that every room is different.

According to Sawin, what he really appreciated about BJSS and its design team is that they would come back and review their plans with the school's administration staff, who would ultimately be the one's using the remodeled spaces.

"I was impressed that they really listened and went back and made changes," said Sawin. "They wanted to make sure that it looked right. They were very accommodating and their question through all this was, 'Will this meet your program needs?' That's really the question they ought to be asking all the time."

Convincing the voters

Sawin and the district started talking about the project five years before the bond was proposed. They did tours with community groups once a week to show how bad of shape the building was in to bring attention to their cause. According to Sawin, the school district kept it kind of quiet because it didn't have the funds to make the necessary improvements.

"So then, all of a sudden, a new superintendent comes in and says 'Hey folks, this is a mess - You don't have anything,'" said Sawin.

One of the biggest problems was the fact that the school was not up to code in many ways. This included lack of a sprinkler system for fires and non-compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, according to Sawin, they got away with this because it was such an old building and were "grandfathered-in" in lieu of new standards.

"It took people here a while," said Sawin. "If you even read about what's going on with our high school now, we still have people who think we don't have to do a thing."

Similar to the Ocean Beach School District, a school bond hadn't been passed in the Aberdeen School District in over 30 years. One of the prevailing thoughts in terms of the school bond was that the needed improvements could have been done through the yearly Maintenance and Operation [M and O] levees.

Sawin said a previous bond, which was passed 32 years ago, was the last time that a large amount of money was allocated for the school distict. This bond money was used to build the "new" junior high school.

"It's 32 years old and still referred to by old-timers as the new school," said Sawin. "We had some say 'Just use your M and O levee,' but if you look at how the state funds schools, they haven't increased their proportion a great deal. They haven't even kept up with inflation.

"So now things you used to use for maintenance you end up using for programs. You're maintaining programs is what you're doing. So in order to do a major remodel of the building you have to have a bond. There's no way your district can do it any other way."

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