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Election | Education

Ballot Measure Would Allow State To Provide Schools Capital Project Funds

Running schools in Oregon is one of the state’s big financial responsibilities. Building them is not. That could change under a ballot measure voters will see in May.

Rob Manning reports on the constitutional change suggested in Ballot Measure 68.

Oregon is full of schools in need of major repairs. Many could use 21st century electrical systems and energy upgrades. 

Joseph Gale Elementary has all of those problems. But it’s also designed for a different time and place, entirely. Forest Grove facilities’ manager Terry Thetford says Gale Elementary was a baby-boomer school, built in the ‘50s.

Terry Thetford: “Original building was ‘we need a building quick, let’s get a free set of plans from the state of California,’ who has these buildings all over California, where open corridors are appropriate.”

By “open corridors” Thetford means the halls have no walls. In the winter, kids splash through puddles to get to lunch and gym class. Principal Melissa Carter says kids really hate leaving class to use the bathroom.

Melissa Carter: “This year with first grade, they were wetting their pants instead of going to the restroom. Last year, I had fourth graders, that I brought them in to talk about restroom issues, they said ‘we don’t use the bathroom, we don’t drink water during the day, because we don’t want to use the restrooms here, because we’re afraid’.”

Carter says she’s afraid, too, of facing a major security problem. She’s had close calls already .  For example,  earlier this year  a first grade boy decided to go home, and slipped out of a classroom.

Melissa Carter: “He walked off the property this direction, and he made it all the way home before we’d realized he’d left our campus. And so in a normal building – where you usually have one door where kids are entering and exiting – we can monitor that.”

Forest Grove officials say it would cost more to fix Joseph Gale than to replace it. Four years ago, the district tried to use the only means at its disposal to replace the school. The district asked local voters to approve a property tax hike to pay off a construction bond. It failed.

School officials in Forest Grove plan to put out another local bond this fall. They say their case is stronger this time. But along with school leaders across Oregon, they’re hoping another funding source comes through: the state legislature.

Right now, the state can build roads, bridges, universities, or community colleges. But the Legislature is prohibited by the state constitution from floating low-cost bonds to build public schools.

Portland school board member Bobbie Regan explained to her colleagues recently, how Ballot Measure 68 would change that. 

Bobbie Regan: “Measure 68 will allow the state of Oregon to provide matching dollars to school districts for capital projects approved through locally passed school bonds.”

Measure 68 was referred out of the 2009 legislative session to allow the state to take out debt to build schools. But speaker of the Oregon House, Dave Hunt, emphasizes that the measure doesn’t require the state to use the new power. He says he’d want the state to help the hard-luck cases.

Dave Hunt: “Districts like Vernonia that have a natural disaster that wipes out school buildings. That community in that case should not have the responsibility to have to pass a bond measure and pay 100 percent of the cost of that new building. They should have some responsibility, but they shouldn’t shoulder the entire responsibility.”

Hunt says he’d also want to target school districts that are seeing pronounced growth, due to Oregon’s tendency to concentrate development. The legislative referral had the support of most lawmakers last year. But not everyone.

Southern Oregon senator Doug Whitsett says Measure 68 would open a new way for the state to go into debt.

Doug Whitsett: “It’s like a family that’s maxed out on its credit cards. They still have good credit ratings, but they’re just one lost job, or one little disaster away from not having any credit rating at all.”

The state’s debt policy advisory committee says the state is at its limit for bonds, right now. But hundreds of millions of dollars become available in 2012. 

How K-12 projects would be selected hasn’t been worked out. But Representative Hunt likes the way community colleges do it.

After going decades without using their authority to borrow for community college buildings, lawmakers have taken out more than $130 million for them in the last   five years.

It’s helped that their leaders now submit a list of priority projects. But getting agreement among 17 community college leaders might be a lot easier than finding agreement among heads of nearly 200 Oregon school districts.

Ultimately, opponent, Senator Doug Whitsett worries that school districts would make their projects bigger than they can afford on their own.

Back in Forest Grove, district spokeswoman Connie Potter says the district is considering a $65 million  bond, but it has at least $90 million in need.

She says if there was state money available to them, board members would have a choice.

Connie Potter: “If it did pass, then we’d have an opportunity to possibly not levy as much as the voters approved, or else do more of that $90 million list.”

Ballot Measure 68 could also help school districts that for whatever reason don’t get matching funds from the state. It would allow local bond dollars to buy things that are prohibited right now – like desks and computers.

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