Wildcat Center set to open in less than three months

LA GRANDE — A red-letter day in the La Grande School District’s history is fast approaching.

The school district will be able to begin occupying the new Wildcat Center on Thursday, Aug. 1, according to Superintendent George Mendoza. This news has has many but not all of the staff at La Grande Middle School in a high energy, optimistic mode, according to Principal Chris Wagner.

"The excitement, anticipation and apprehension is growing," he said.

He said that many staff members are looking forward to the extra space the "beautiful'' new building will provide. He noted that some, though, are a bit anxious because they are leery of change.

Clearance for building occupancy will be granted a little more than a year after construction of the academic and athletic center started. The building will have three gyms and six classrooms.

Work that stills needs to be done at the Wildcat Center includes putting in sheetrock for walls and installing lighting, doors and polyurethane for its gym floors.

This will be the third school building Mendoza said he has helped open during his career as an educator. Mendoza said of the three, getting the Wildcat Center constructed has been the smoothest. Mendoza has helped oversee the opening of the new Central Elementary School in La Grande in 2017 and a grade school in Pasco, Washington, several years before that.

He said the process of getting the Wildcat Center built has been smooth because of how easy it has been to work with the general contractor for the building project, the Mike Becker General Contractor.

“It has been very collaborative and supportive," he said. "It has been enjoyable to work with them."

The Wildcat Center is being built with money from a $4.54 million bond La Grande School District voters approved in 2022 and a $4 million matching grant from the state. The new building will replace the school district’s aging Annex gym building next to La Grande Middle School. The Annex building will be torn down later this year.

Enrollment picture not improving

Mendoza also had less encouraging news to report to the school board on the enrollment front. He said enrollment is now 2,043, down from the 2,072 students the school district had a year ago. The total is also 36 students less than what the school district had at the start of the current academic year.

The school district now has 300 less students than it had before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Mendoza attributes the decline to a greater number of students who are now being homeschooled or taking classes online outside of the La Grande School District and a falling birth rate in La Grande.

Declining enrollment is having a big impact on the school district’s budget picture since it receives at least $8,000 from the state per student. Mendoza said La Grande’s falling enrollment means that in 2024-25 the school district will be spending less money that it will be receiving from the state and federal government. The district will be able to make up the difference by drawing money from its reserve fund and making staff cuts by not filling positions open due to resignations and retirements.

The La Grande School District will be dealing with a deficit situation in 2024-25 not only because of falling enrollment but also because school districts are no longer receiving COVID-19 relief from the federal government. Mendoza said his school district will have no COVID-19 relief funding to spend in 2024-25.

The La Grande School District’s financial outlook will be much brighter if the Oregon Legislature boosts what it provides public school districts significantly for the 2025-27 biennium, Mendoza said, adding he will be pushing for the state to raise the money it provides for public school districts serving students in kindergarten through 12th grade to $11.5 billion in 2025-27. This would be a 13% increase from the state’s 2023-25 K-12 education budget.

“This would allow us to keep all of our programs if we do not have an enrollment increase," he said.