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D21 seeks input on loan

Reflecting on past complaints has prompted North Wasco County School District 21 to add a layer of transparency and accountability to possible new funding efforts by creating a Project Oversight Committee.

“We’re looking to make sure we have the support of the community in whatever we decide to do,” Superintendent Candy Armstrong said.

The extra cash would come if the school board votes to approve a refinance of a $5 million loan it took out about five years ago to pay for capital improvements such as roof repairs.

During an April 9 school board meeting Armstrong said when the district took on the original debt people complained that much of the public didn’t know about it until after it was a done deal. This time she would like to see more community input, and asked the board to approve formation of the committee now so that it will be ready to go if the board does vote to refinance the debt obligation.

According to a draft charter, the committee would be made up of community members appointed by the school board and would advise the district on the prioritization and scope of capital improvement projects. Armstrong said the committee would ideally include members of the construction industry who could determine if the estimated project costs are valid and within reason.

First, however, the school board would have to approve the selling of new bonds to pay off the old ones, which hasn’t been decided yet. Board members said they were in favor of a special public meeting to speak with a financial industry representative in detail about the district’s options, but at least one director expressed reservations.

“I hate to keep digging ourselves further into a hole,” Carol Roderick said. “You mentioned it’s kind of like making a withdrawal on your Visa card to pay your MasterCard. If I wouldn’t do it in my personal life, why would I want to do it with the school?”

Chief Financial Officer Randy Anderson explained that the district has a few different options with its debt, similar to the options of refinancing a house.

One option would be to simply take advantage of lower interest rates. The district would leave the remaining time to pay off the loan at 15 years but would save about $300,000 total in interest, which would work out to about $20,000 a year less than the district’s current payments of $380,000 a year.

“The refinancing piece makes very good economic sense,” Anderson said. He said the move isn’t risky, but the downside would be that the savings would be spread out over 15 years, making it difficult to do any big projects with the money.

Another option would keep the district’s yearly payments the same but reset the loan length to 20 years. That would mean additional payments but would give the district about $1.7 million in cash that could be used in the next year or two for large projects.

“We do have a history of making these payments. We have budgeted for them. They are not new spending, they would just last about six years longer than anticipated,” Anderson said.

He said one of the district’s biggest concerns is finding a way to make room for full-day kindergarten. Any district in the state that hasn’t made the switch by the 2015-2016 school year will lose part of its state funding. The district is planning to switch to full-day kindergarten at Chenowith Elementary next year, then Colonel Wright the year after that and Dry Hollow the year after.

Armstrong said the district can make it work right now at Chenowith but there just isn’t room elsewhere, especially at Dry Hollow, and parents have been strongly against moving some grades to other buildings.

“At this point I see kindergarten taking place at current schools because every time we have tried to talk about a different configuration there has been such an outpouring of resistance,” she said. “People like their schools where they are at and we don’t have time to try to change their minds.”

She said since the board meeting where refinancing the capital improvement debt was first brought up she has heard from several members of the community about it and there has been both positive and negative feedback.

Armstrong said when the district is able to schedule a board meeting with a representative from Seattle-Northwest Securities it will begin publicizing the date and time of the meeting so that interested members of the community can attend.

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