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School bond pitched at town hall meeting

If the school district built four new schools with separate bonds, the tax rate would reach $4.50 per $1,000 assessed property tax valuation for a period, a school official said.

Instead, the district is proposing funding the schools with a single, long-term bond authority that would not exceed $2.99 per $1,000, and would "very likely" be less than that, Kathy Ursprung, chair of the North Wasco County School District 21 board, said at a town hall Tuesday at Mid-Columbia Senior Center.

The board’s is considering asking voters in November to approve a 50-year bond authority to levy $235 million over time, and build a new school about every five years.

The district asked its bond attorney what it would cost to replace the high school and three elementaries individually, with different bond votes each time, and they were told levy rates would start at around $2 per $1,000 and ratchet up with each school, reaching $4.50 per $1,000 for a 10-year period.

The district will conduct polling in May or June to see if the bond would pass before it decides to put it on the ballot.

Having a 50-year bond authority to cover four schools provides more certainty in the tax rates and more certainty that schools will be replaced, Ursprung said.

She said the district will look at all possible funding options, but the main source of public construction in Oregon is through bonds.

Randy Anderson, the chief financial officer of the school district, said the district was not eligible in the possible November election for the type of grant that Dufur schools just got.

One attendee said the bond would be too much for people.

Ursprung said, “I know some of our families will struggle with this, and that’s a hard thing, but we can’t stand still and let our schools fall apart.”

The average home in the school district is valued at $175,000, which would mean $523 a year in new taxes at the $2.99 per $1,000 rate. Daily, that amounts to less than the cost of a simple cup of coffee, Ursprung said. Looked at on a weekly basis, it was less than the price of a lunch at a restaurant, and monthly, it is equal to about half the cost of a gym membership.

She said having 50-year authority to issue bonds gives the district the flexibility to be strategic about when it sells bonds on the bond market and also when it builds buildings, to optimize the construction market.

The residents living in the former District 12, which is about two-thirds of the population of the district, have been paying bonds for the middle school built in 2002. Those bonds retire in 2020. Those taxpayers have already been paying $1.65 per $1,000 property valuation for those bonds. The new bond would not kick in until the middle school bond is paid off, and it would mean a net increase for former D12 property owners of $1.34 per $1,000 over what they’re paying now, Ursprung said.

Both residents of former D12 and of former District 9 would pay the same $2.99 tax rate under the bond authority.

New schools are needed because the current ones are old, expensive to maintain, and not equipped for modern learning. Teaching today happens in groups and is not the rote learning done in he rows of yesteryear, she said.

They also lack the security measures needed today.

“Yes, it costs a lot to build schools, but we can’t let our kids have schools that are increasingly less safe and the bottom line is we need new schools,” she said.

The schools are in poor condition. Wahtonka, built in 1965, has bad boilers and a crack in the gym that is so big you can see through it to the outside, said school board member Ernie Blatz.

An attempt to wire Chenowith Elementary for air conditioning didn’t work because the electrical system couldn’t handle the additional load. It can run computers or air conditioning, but not both, Ursprung added.

The cafeteria there is so undersized that lunch is served in six shifts, from 10:30 a.m. until 1 p.m., “and that’s a tough thing for kids,” she said.

Dry Hollow is the newest elementary, dating to 1960, and the student population has expanded so much it uses six modular classrooms. Traffic congestion is terrible.

The high school dates to 1940 and is a beautiful building, she said, but it has had structural issues. She showed a picture of kids sitting in the hallways, saying, “this is our cafeteria.” It also lacks adequate parking.

Mike Elston emphasized how old the high school was, saying, “My mother went to this high school, and I’m 70 years old.”

He said expectations are that The Dalles will see steady growth as people are pushed out of more expensive metro areas, and having strong schools would serve as a draw. The burden of repaying the bond will decrease on individual property owners as more people move here, spreading out the cost, he said.

Classrooms have been so hot that school has been cancelled. Ursprung said she wouldn’t want to work in an un-airconditioned classroom, and Megan Thompson said, “We can’t focus when we’re hot or cold, same thing for students.”

Colonel Wright Elementary, built in 1924 with an addition in the 1960s, is so inefficient that it uses twice the power of a typical school in Oregon, Ursprung said.

She said the district tried to pass a $42 million bond levy in 2009 to do districtwide repairs, but it was soundly defeated.

The message from the community was to improve academics first. That has happened, with the high school’s latest graduation rate reaching 87.1 percent, well above the state average of 75 percent.

By 2015, a citizen committee was formed independently of the district with an eye to addressing aging schools, and came up with a proposal to replace the high school first, and then the elementaries. The district then formed its own citizen committee in 2017, which reached the same conclusion.

Earlier this month, another citizen committee selected the site of the current Wahtonka Community School (formerly Wahtonka High School) as the site for a new high school.

No decisions have been made about any other schools, or what would happen to the current high school. Blatz said that other school districts had turned old high schools into condominiums.

If a bond passes, it would be two years of design and engineering before construction could begin on a high school. Occupancy could happen three to four years after bond passage, Ursprung said.

In addition to building four new schools, the bond money would be used to modernize current classrooms so they can be functional until they are replaced, which could be 20 years in some instances. Ursprung said she expected those improvements to happen quickly after a bond passage.

Changes include modernizing career classrooms and labs and making technology upgrades, and adding security features like internal classroom door locks and security cameras.

Also planned are new heating, cooling and other building systems, repairing/replacing roofs, making energy efficiency upgrades, eventually refurbishing the middle school, and possibly creating an early learning center.

“We need buildings we can heat and cool and roofs that keep the rain out,” she said.

Ursprung described the long effort to replace the middle school, noting that as several buildings became condemned and uninhabitable, the school was able to send students to the nearby Joseph G. Wilson school and then down the street to a former grocery store.

But no such student housing alternatives exist now should the high school begin to face such problems, she said.

“In the end they were taping the windows so they didn’t shatter on kids,” Ursprung said.

Ellen Bromley Ruark lives across from the high school and feels it is long overdue for replacement. She worried that only eight people were at the town hall aside from school-affiliated people. She also said people felt the price was too much for people to afford.

She asked why the district didn’t ask Google for $5 million. Ursprung said, “Certainly we’ll be talking to Google. They’re an education partner with us.”

Google has paid for Chromebooks for every middle schooler and will do the same for the high school.

Also, the first building Google built has enjoyed a tax exempt status that will expire in 2022, bringing more valuation onto local tax rolls.

Ruark asked about cannabis tax. Ursprung said it was just $50 million a year for the whole state, so it isn’t as much as people think.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify differing tax rates between individual bond levies and a 50-year bond levy.


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