In welcome news for school officials, a poll of 300 likely voters found 55 percent were willing to pay more taxes to repair or replace schools if the money is spent accountably and ensures access to a high quality modern education.
Only 30 percent of those polled were unwilling to pay more taxes, the North Wasco County School District board learned at a special meeting June 6.
The survey also found that all of the options for new school buildings were highly popular, but a new high school led the pack.
In what pollsters called “a significant finding,” 61 percent of those polled felt schools were in only fair or poor shape.
That is meaningful, because typically schools require a strong education campaign to help explain the need behind school improvements, pollster Ben Patinkin told the board.
Just 28 percent of respondents felt the schools were in good or excellent shape.
In this case, a solid portion of district voters are already at least somewhat aware of the challenges faced by the district’s aging facilities, he said.
A caution quickly followed though, saying that a strong push from the school was still needed. “A majority (52 percent) say that their school facilities are in ‘fair’ condition. Moving forward the district will need to reach out to these voters in particular in order to generate awareness ahead of a potential facilities effort.”
District Chief Financial Officer Randy Anderson said the poll results were “encouraging.”
“I think there was a recognition that, for one, I think people see, ‘Yeah, your facilities need some help.’ That awareness has some values.”
Also, regardless of the condition of facilities, respondents in general said, “I think your students get a good education in your district.”
Another takeaway from the survey was that the district needed to get, or keep, the public involved.
Two citizen groups have formed in the last year to look at improving school facilities and improving graduation rates and test scores.
“I think those groups together or separately generated some momentum toward this goal that we should do something, and the time is now,” Anderson said. “The district certainly doesn’t want to lose the momentum, we don’t want to lose the willingness to help in the process.”
Anderson said the survey was “a temperature check” to test the public’s thinking on facilities.
The quality of education offered by the district was seen positively by 62 percent of respondents. “In sum, voters believe the district is doing a good job educating children in the community, but that its facilities face growing challenges, including outdated technology, overcrowding and ongoing maintenance,” Patinkin said.
Patinkin noted, “Interestingly, there is a 16-point gap between those who say district facilities are aging and in need of repair and those who say they would be willing to pay more to repair those facilities.
“The gap is most pronounced among Republicans and former North Wasco schools parents. Both of these groups are priorities for outreach moving forward,” he said.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, parents with kids attending the schools were the most supportive of the schools. “Indeed, over eight in 10 say they are willing to pay more to repair or replace facilities.” Mobilizing this group to spread the word about the hurdles aging buildings present to a quality education should be a top priority for the district, he said.
Patinkin added, “It’s also worth noting that support for local school improvements is predicated on age and, consequently, vote history.” Younger voters and parents – groups that are typically underrepresented in off-year elections -- are the most willing to pay more, while older voters “are in need of a stronger, sustained education effort.”
His message was that the district needed to pick the timing of a bond election carefully in light of that.
While replacing the high school was most popular with respondents, a satellite middle college on the Columbia Gorge Community College campus was a close second.
The building options outlined for survey-takers were:
• Replacing or renovating the high school, which is over 75 years old, with many classrooms unable to provide the modern technology and tools needed to compete for good paying jobs or college;
• Adding a fourth elementary school to reduce overcrowding and update existing schools;
• Create a satellite middle college at the college campus that would serve certain 11th and 12th graders from the high school;
• Create an early learning center for the district for all pre-K and kindergarten students in the district.
The issues voters wanted to see addressed included safety (including updating schools buildings for earthquake safety), overcrowding, modernization and basic repairs and updates such as electrical issues and air conditioning for student classrooms.
The survey also found only a slim majority believe that the district is accountable and transparent.
Anderson said this was only the first survey, and it wasn’t aimed specifically at testing support for a bond, he said. The district will do another survey as it gets closer to preparing a bond issue.
He did not know when a bond issue might be floated, but said the soonest it would appear was 2017.
The board will meet next tomorrow to discuss its next steps.