The D21 school board heard at a listening session last Thursday that schools need replaced, but the recently failed bond to replace four schools sought too much money, over too long a period.
A number of people said the district had low income or blue collar residents who couldn’t afford the bond.
Citizens said the board was not receptive to longstanding pushback against the $235 million bond authority, which would have approved five bonds issued over 20 years, to be repaid in 50 years.
Several speakers suggested replacing perhaps one or two schools, while others said the high school — at least the old part — is beautiful and perhaps worth salvaging.
Anthony Jarnasky suggested starting with a bond for just one school, and it should not be “a Taj Mahal.”
The bond was a divisive topic on social media, and Jarnasky said he was “frustrated to no end” by being told he wasn’t supporting kids because he opposed the bond. He said he would be first in line to support a bond that he could back.
Cassie Ware said the board has “tried to shape what we want instead of responding to what we tell you we want.”
She said commenters on social media said as far back as June that they wanted one school per bond and would not pass multiple schools on a single bond measure. She said board Chair Kathy Ursprung deleted those types of comments from her social media post.
Ware also took the board to task for not getting a $4 million grant for building construction. “There’s no excuse for leaving that on the table.” She said that was not pocket change for a community whose average income was low income.
District officials said they did not seek the $4 million grant because they didn’t get a smaller grant needed to assemble the materials to apply for the larger grant.
Phil Brady, a teacher who was on the political action committee that backed the bond, encouraged people to be reasonable and recognize some things can’t be changed, such as how buildings are funded (through bonds) and how taxes are assessed.
Buildings will get older and more expensive to replace over time, and inaction has consequences people must accept, he said.
He said he now agrees that the district needs a better plan. He
proposed working with other local governments and non-profits and moving forward in the next three months on a new plan.
Ware asked the board to resign, and John Fredrick posted online a full statement he didn’t have time to finish (commenters were limited to five minutes) in which he asked Ursprung and board member John Nelson – the two remaining longtime board members -- to step down and suggested that an interim superintendent be placed in charge.
Longtime board members Ernie Blatz and Dean McAllister resigned shortly after the bond failed.
Moderator Pat Sublette praised the board for taking the step of listening, saying it was rare for a board to open itself up to that kind of input following a bond defeat.
Superintendent Candy Armstrong said the community would have to help them reach out to people. She noted the audience was “really white.” She said, “we need to get out in the community and hear more voices.”
The board thought it had reached people, she said, “but here we are, a big negative experience for this community.”
Josh Farris said the board needed to educate itself on “the [housing] crisis” in The Dalles.
He said he knew a lot of people in town who couldn’t afford the bond, and he knew many people who are homeless.
He said the elephant in the room was Google, and he called for a progressive tax, not a regressive tax that was punitive to those with lower income.
Stephen Jupe, the former high school principal, said the high school was “forgiven, sort of,” 10 years ago after an audit for handicapped accessibility. It’s under audit again, “and I don’t think we’re going to get forgiven again, unless someone down in Salem is very kind.”
Libby Robinson said no one disagreed that new schools were needed; the disconnect was how to go about it.
While bond proponents said it would have added perhaps $40 a month to a property tax bill, she said for those on a tight budget, that $40 is “their food, their gas, their light bill.”
She also asked if the school board needed to be more diverse. “Where are the people that work for minimum wage?”
She said when bond opponents are told they “choose not to come to meetings” where they could affect district policy, that claim ignores the reality that many can’t attend meetings because they’re single parents, for example, and childcare is an obstacle.
Jodi DePoel said she felt she wasn’t being heard. She was a single mother of a disabled child, living below the poverty line, meaning she “ticked all the boxes.”
“I know your guys’ hearts are in the right place,” DePoel said. “I need you to see our hearts are in the right place, too.”
Fredrick, a former board member, said he was “embarrassed” by the condition of schools, but said while “we have a very generous community, we also have a very hurt and divided community.”
He said he was able to get donations from businesses for The Dalles Booster Club because they knew where the money was going. The community still has festering hurt between the east and west sides of town, he said, not only over the school district mergers that happened years ago but also between the “haves and have nots.”
He said the board needs to listen to people who disagree with them and not dismiss their concerns. He again presented a strategic plan proposal that he’d presented three times before. He said the roughly $70,000-$80,000 spent on the bond measure could’ve paid for a strategic plan.
Eric Coleman said he knows the 50-year bond seemed unfathomable, but if the district builds just one school at a time, “it’s going to be a lot more expensive.” He said a lot of people he talked to “didn’t understand their property tax statement.” He said the community needs to somehow come together and get past the fear and mistrust.
Dylan McManus, who voted for the bond, said he didn’t see a lot of partnerships between local entities, but instead saw a lot of parallel work. He encouraged collaboration.