Central Elementary School will receive a late Christmas present from the La Grande School District — a second parking lot.

The school district has announced it will convert the La Grande High School tennis courts, which are at the northern edge of Central Elementary’s playground, into a 60-space parking lot over the holiday break, which started today and runs through Jan. 2.

The lot will be available to teachers and staff only from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. on school days and will be open to the public after this time for school event parking, said La Grande School District Superintendent George Mendoza.

The extra lot will relieve a crowded parking and traffic situation in front of the new Central Elementary, which opened in late August at 701 H Ave. The spacious two-story building replaced the original Central Elementary at 402 K Ave., which was closed in June because of its poor condition and has since been torn down.

Congestion has been an issue at the new Central since it opened. The school, which has 67 staff members, has space for about 40 vehicles in the parking lot in front of its main entrance. The inadequate parking has forced many parents picking up and dropping off their children to park along H Avenue. So many parents and staff park on H Avenue it is not uncommon for parked vehicles on both sides of the street to run west from Central almost to Sunset Drive.

“Sometimes I almost have to park at Grande Ronde Hospital (which is on Sunset Drive) when I come back to school during the day,” said Central Principal Suzy Mayes, who, like everyone at her school, does not have a reserved space.

Mayes anticipates that far fewer parents will park on H Avenue once the LHS tennis courts are converted because space will be available in the parking lot in front of Central. The front lot has normally been filled to capacity by the vehicles of Central’s staff during school days.

The principal said this will likely be a welcome change for the H Avenue residents between Central and Sunset Drive.

“We want to be considerate of our neighbors,” Mayes said. “We want to make sure we do all we can for them.”

The parking situation has inconvenienced residents near Central on H Avenue. Cars sometimes block mailboxes and driveways. Mayes said there is concern that first responder vehicles like ambulances would not be able to reach some of the homes during an emergency because of the congestion.

The current tennis courts, which are in need of resurfacing, will be replaced by new courts built where old Central was situated. The new courts may be completed as early as this summer, Mendoza said. The new courts will cost about $300,000, and the superintendent said the school district has the funding needed to build them in part because of an unanticipated enrollment increase this school year. The school district has 60 to 70 more students than projected. This is providing at least $300,000 in additional funding since school districts receive about $6,000 per student from the state.

Construction of the new courts would mean all parties affected directly by the creation of the new parking lot will benefit, said Merle Comfort, chair of the La Grande School Board.

“It is a good compromise,” Comfort said. “We needed to rebuild the tennis courts in the first place. We might as well rebuild them at a new place and create parking (that will) benefit Central.”

For the complete story, see the Dec. 20 edition of The Observer.