As the Nov. 6 vote approaches on a $235 million bonding authority to replace four schools, a local woman caused a stir on social media last weekend questioning the district’s decision not to seek a $4 million matching grant for the project.
A district official said North Wasco County School District 21 tried but failed to get two smaller planning grants that would’ve helped the district create the extensively detailed reports necessary to seek the larger grant.
The deadline for the grant was last March, and the district hadn’t yet decided by then whether it would put the measure on the ballot, said Randy Anderson, D21’s chief financial officer. It waited to get polling done in late May, which showed enough community support to warrant putting it on the November ballot.
Local parent Cassie Ware has been active recently on a community Facebook page, The Dalles Happenings, with criticism of the district over not seeking a matching grant from the Oregon School Capital Improvement Matching Program.
Districts this size qualify for up to $4 million in matching funds for building construction. However, the grant is meant to serve as an incentive to get voters to approve a bond, so the grant must be sought before the election is held, said Michael Elliott, school facilities program manager for the Oregon Department of Education.
D21 board chair Kathy Ursprung said, “Yes it would’ve been nice to have this grant. It takes staff time and resources to develop grant applications, but let’s keep our eye on the big picture. Our schools are deteriorating, the district has done as much as they can afford to do every year to keep these facilities up. But to make them safe and secure we need to make major investments.”
The bonding authority would authorize issuing five bonds over 20 years to replace four schools and do interim improvements while some schools wait up to 20 years to be replaced. Each bond would take 30 years to pay off.
The downside of longer bonds is that they cost more in interest, but the district chose longer bond repayments to keep the tax rate lower, Anderson said. The tax rate would be approximately $2.99 per $1,000 assessed value or lower.
Ware said she wanted to make it “abundantly clear” that she believes the district needs new schools and that she doesn’t think anyone is acting with bad intent. She feels the district has not done enough groundwork to justify the bond request, and that the size of the bond request will put too much pressure on people struggling financially.
School officials on social media cited a series of community meetings over two years that settled on the idea of replacing the high school first, and then developed a site plan for a new high school at the site of the current Wahtonka Community School.
Ware said she was told that by seeking a series of bonds in this election, instead of a single bond, the district would not qualify for the $4 million grant.
Elliott said that was incorrect. “The fact that they’re going to issue bonds over several years, we don’t care. As long as they issue bonds that equal the grant amount or more, that’s what I ultimately care about,” Elliott said.
He said the district can’t use a previous election as the basis for a future grant request.
Ware said the “industry standard” for seeking a bond was to first have a long range facility plan in place, and said she was told the district didn’t have one.
But Anderson said the district has done a number of long range facility plans, although its latest one is “somewhat dated.” They are mandatory for any district with 2,500 or more students and D21 has just over 3,000.
In 2016, the district sought two smaller grants: one for $20,000 to do a facilities assessment and one for $25,000 to do a long range facilities plan.
Elliott said the state got 118 such applications that year, but was only able to fund 43 of them.
Elliott said, “very few schools have extra money laying around” and for schools with high poverty rates, even $20,000 to $25,000 is “hard to come by.”
Ware said 13.5 percent of people are living below the poverty line in city limits, and more beyond city boundaries.
She said bond supporters have said it will only add $40 or $50 to their tax bill per month, which they find acceptable. She cited a study that found that for people struggling financially, a difference of just $50 in expenses a month can push them into being unable to pay their bills.
She believed the cost of the bond would drive people out of town. “People say, ‘You can pay a little bit more.’ No, we actually can’t.”
Anderson acknowledged that “there will be economic hardships to some people.”
Ware posted online that she talked to Elliott, who told her she was the only person, to his recollection, from within D21 who had contacted him about the grant possibility.
Anderson confirmed he didn’t talk to Elliott. “I certainly didn’t call him and say ‘I’m not applying.’” When he applied for the two smaller grants in 2016, he did it online.
Anderson said if a district applies for the $4 million grant and gets it, but then either doesn’t hold an election or loses, it “goes to the end of the line” in terms of reapplying.
Ware felt that instead of spending money on an architect and PR firm, the district could’ve spent that money on doing the necessary reports to qualify for the grant.
Anderson also clarified a misconception on social media that the school district faced litigation in 2010 over a possible local option levy. In fact, the district itself sought a court ruling over whether it could pass a levy and use part of the proceeds to pay off the middle school bond.
The court ruled that, yes, the district could use some of the proceeds to help pay off the bonds. But when there was significant public pushback from residents of the former District 9, which had not voted for the middle school bonds to begin with since that was only voted on by voters in the former District 12, the plan was scrapped.
There is also a misconception that the merger of the two districts into D21 was voted down in the former D9. Superintendent Candy Armstrong said it actually passed in every D9 precinct but one, and was close in that one.