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D21 eyes tax issue

With a goal of putting a bond measure on the May 2017 ballot, the school district will soon begin reaching out to the community regarding new buildings.

In December, the North Wasco County School District 21 board will seek a broad range of citizens to be on a community involvement committee, said board Vice Chair Kathy Ursprung.

Meetings will begin in January.

BLRB Architects, a company that has been building schools in the Northwest since 1953, has been hired to help facilitate the community outreach and facilities planning process.

Ursprung said the main goal is “to find what makes the most sense, and that’s not just in terms of what facility we need, but also in terms of what it would cost the community.

“There’s a tendency to say, ‘Oh, we have such a great need, we need to pile a bunch of stuff in this,’ but that will make a bond that is not going to be comfortable for our taxpayers,” Ursprung said. “So we need to think it through and be strategic about what we do go after and make sure we think about our role as stewards of facilities because there’s a lot of unmet need at all of the schools.”

School District Superintendent Candy Armstrong said the upcoming outreach would be “a real opportunity for the community to outline a process that will” address not only school facilities, but what the community will look like for the next 50 years.

BLRB is analyzing the large amount of data the district has already gathered on the status of its aging buildings, which range from 56 to 92 years old, with the exception of the middle school, built 15 years ago.

The old buildings have costly maintenance and poor temperature control. When a maintenance bond failed in 2008, the district had to take on some debt to do needed repairs. The annual debt repayment of around $375,000 takes away the ability to hire more staff, say D21 officials.

A looming population bulge of school-age children will put more pressure on already overcrowded schools.

The district is considering the concept of asking for a single, large, long-term bond that would give the district enough cash to eventually replace all the buildings. In a “maximum bond authority,” officials ask for a maximum amount of money, but it only collects the money over time, as each building is built.

Districts in Beaverton and Bend passed such levies recently.

The community involvement committee will include people from all walks of life, and will also include teachers, administrators and students, Ursprung said.

The district would ideally like to be on the May ballot, in what Ursprung said was “a very ambitious timeframe,” but if that doesn’t happen, she said the board will aim for the November ballot.

“The main reason we would ideally like to have May is because the community is asking us to do something,” she said.

She said, “I’m sure you’ve seen the big binder of deferred maintenance, the things we can’t afford to get to, and some of that is very major work that needs to be done on the schools. We’ve gone through a lot of the analysis of our buildings already, that’s one thing that will save us time in the long run.”

Last spring, the school district surveyed 300 likely voters and found 55 percent were willing to pay more taxes for responsibly built schools that provided high quality education.

In that polling, the most support was for a new high school, with a middle college campus a close second. Also popular was adding a fourth elementary and updating the others, as well as creating an early learning center.

The state of school facilities have drawn public interest. A citizens group formed last year to look at the issue, and presented building concepts to the school board.

One proposal for a new high school was nixed because the land was in the restrictive Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

Another would put it at the current Wahtonka campus.

A third was a campus at the Columbia Gorge Community College. The school board looked into that idea, but the college demurred.

The idea of a middle college — serving high school kids in a college setting — is still being pursued, however. Elements of it are already in place, with high school students able to attend a number of college classes.

The district recently completed a preliminary geotechnical study of another possible high school location: the site of the current administrative building, in the 3200 block of West 10th, opposite the Wahtonka campus.

The bare bones results found no red flags on the hillside property, the board heard last week.

However, more in-depth studies would be needed before buildings were placed there.

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