The quiet, rural town of Vernonia, Oregon, is no stranger to adversity. In the winter of 2007, a series of Pacific storms lashed this community, which is situated in the northwest corner of the state, on the Nehalem River. According to OregonBusiness, the river crested seven feet above flood stage. The flood that followed — one of two “500-year” flood events to occur in a span of just 11 years — swamped much of the town and its infrastructure. The area’s elementary, middle and high schools, along with the Head Start building, were in ruins.
This left Vernonia in much the same position as Greensburg, Kansas, after the latter was hit by a tornado. Like Greensberg, the citizens of Vernonia rallied, and like their counterparts in Kansas, they made a bold decision to build back green.
In November 2009, in the depths of the recession, the area’s citizens voted to increase their property taxes by approving a $13 million school bond as a “down payment” on the new school The rest of the funding to rebuild — $16 million — came from private donations, non-profit funds, and a combination of federal and state sources, including $11 million from FEMA.
The Vernonia School District finally broke ground last April, and at the end of August, the city celebrated the ribbon-cutting of a brand new, energy K-12 school and community center, constructed to LEED Platinum standards. Former Governor Ted Kulongoski and United States Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) were on hand to note the occasion, along with several other federal and state officials.
A $1 million grant from the Energy Department’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) program helped the school district incorporate energy efficiency measures into the project. These include an energy-efficient integrated heating and cooling system, which — along with the building’s tight envelope and efficient lighting — are expected to reduce the school district’s annual energy usage by 43 percent, saving taxpayers more than $62,000 per year.
A biomass boiler purchased with EECBG funds will provide the school district with additional energy savings. This boiler will be fueled with wood pellets culled from local forest restoration efforts, providing heat and power to the school.
The school is LEED registered, and currently pending certification.