In the late 1950s and early 1960s, The Dalles built four new schools and doubled the size of a fifth. Voters at the time chose to prioritize the education of future generations.
Unfortunately, construction methods of the time left a lot to be desired. Most of those schools are poorly insulated and made with materials that weren’t designed to hold up to 60 years and three generations of children. The Dalles High School, though of better construction, is 20 years older, has antiquated, difficult to repair systems, is on an undersized site and was built before ADA accessibility laws.
Our facilities staff does an amazing job with these old buildings. Unfortunately, two thirds of work requests go to emergency repairs, leaving little time for preventive maintenance.
In other words, we are losing our battle with the ravages of time. These schools, like many across the country, also don’t measure up to the safety and security needs of our times. We take many security measures, but costs to add needed upgrades far exceed budget capabilities, as do other repair and improvement needs.
These well-loved old buildings were built when rote memorization was the teaching method. Today, learning is experience-driven, hands-on, takes place in teams, not rows, and recognizes that students learn in many ways. We need adaptable schools that can meet current and future needs.
North Wasco County School District proposes to replace The Dalles High School and all three elementary schools over 15 years (including improvements to Mosier Charter School), and make modest but needed improvements to the schools that must last through that time.
In 2017, a citizen group went through a lengthy review of the district’s building needs and found that we are at another point in history where we need to invest in schools. They also set guiding principles for replacement. New schools will be:
• a community resource
• a beautiful source of community pride
This proposal comes as we are reaping the academic rewards of eight years of curriculum realignment and new strategies around attendance and student success. As a result, The Dalles High’s 2017 graduation rate was 87.1 percent, well above the state’s 75 percent average.
The proposed master plan for school replacement has been developed with lots of thought to controlling annual cost to taxpayers and to assuring replacement of schools over a reasonable time period.
In Oregon, school construction is financed through general obligation bonds. These bonds are sold to investors and paid back over time with property taxes.
North Wasco County School District proposes one request: To ask voter approval to issue bonds five times over the course of 20 years. The Dalles High School has been identified for replacement first, with an elementary school to follow about every five years.
The fifth bond sale would be used to fund repairs and upgrades to The Dalles Middle School and specific projects that were not completed under earlier bond sales.
Total cost of the plan is estimated at about $235 million over 20 years with repayment completed 30 years after that.
One advantage of this master plan is that we can structure bond repayment to maintain a total school bond tax rate of $2.99 or less per thousand dollars of taxable value.
One important factor of the structured bonding authority is that most district taxpayers would only see an increase in their rate of about $1.34 per thousand from current tax levels. This is because more than two thirds of taxpayers are already paying $1.65 per thousand for The Dalles Middle School.
Residents of the former Chenowith District have not been paying on that bond under the current district’s formation agreement. They pay zero now, so they will experience the full increase of $2.99 per thousand. That means all district taxpayers will be paying the same rate for schools.
Using individual bond elections to finance schools over the same period, the rate would start out slightly lower but increase every five years to almost $4.50 per thousand, according to bond counsel. We believe voters would find that number too high. While we might succeed in our first election, the likelihood of failure would increase over time.
To protect resident interests, the district is recruiting a group of responsible citizens to serve as a Bond Oversight Committee. This committee would be long-term advisers, assuring that decisions taken about the bond keep the best interests of citizens and taxpayers in mind.
Bonding strategy is new to us, but it isn’t without precedent. Bend voters recently approved a similar plan.
We think this is a well-reasoned, cost-conscious approach that will result in schools that set the tone for our community’s future. What do you think? Let us know at northwascobond.org.
— Kathy Ursprung chairs the board of directors for North Wasco County School District 21.