D21 plans school facilities polling

With clear priorities from a facilities committee to build a new high school first, the D21 school board is looking at its next steps in the process, which will include more public polling.

The school board has an ambitious goal to seek voter approval for what’s called a “bond authority,” allowing it to levy, over time, enough money to replace or upgrade all the schools in the district.

That way, it would not have to go back to voters each time it replaces a school. A few other Oregon school districts have recently approved such sweeping bond authorities.

The goal is to keep the property tax rate at around $3 per $1,000 of assessed property valuation. The district is working with bond underwriter Piper Jaffray on how to structure the debt to keep the property rate as low as possible, said D21 Chief Financial Officer Randy Anderson.

Anderson is working with a figure of $235 million to build a new high school, replace all three elementary schools, build a new early learning center, renovate the middle school, and either renovate or replace Mosier school.

He envisions the buildings will be built and paid for in 40 to 50 years.

The main variable is how long the bonds would last. His question to Piper Jaffray is, “Can we get to $235 million and structure the payout so it’s three bucks?”

He expects to hear some figures from the underwriter later this week. Variables include how often bonds are issued, how long the bond repayment is, and construction intervals.

“If the numbers are lousy I guess we’ll have to rethink it,” he told the school board last week.

The high school is by far the largest school and would be the most expensive to replace. A rough estimate from consultants was $64 million, which was construction costs only, with no contingency or other soft costs.

Anderson said he picked a $235 million figure because, “what I heard when we kept talking to people, was ‘What if [the bond amount is] not enough to do everything?’ Honestly none of the numbers have been engineered. I put a contingency factor in there.”

The school district has a total assessed property valuation of $1.5 billion. Looming on the near horizon is the date, in property tax year 2022-23, when the first buildings built by Google will lose their tax-exempt status, and the property will go on the tax rolls. Anderson has conservatively estimated the value of the property at $150 million.

District Superintendent Candy Armstrong said the goal was to pursue a fairly close schedule of replacing a school every three to four years.

While folks are anxious to have the high school replaced, they are also anxious about the elementary schools, she said. Facilities committee members wanted to see Chenowith Elementary replaced after the high school.

The high school was built in 1940, Col. Wright Elementary was built in 1924, Chenowith in 1961, Dry Hollow Elementary in 1960, Wahtonka Community School in 1965, Mosier Community School in the 1920s, and the district administration building was built in 1953. The middle school was built in 2004.

All of the buildings except the middle school will be in poor condition within five years, a consultant reported earlier. He estimated it would take $22.8 million in repairs over five years just to maintain that poor condition.

Over the winter break, the district got a taste of what it’s like to repair aging systems when the main electrical panel at Dry Hollow went on the fritz.

The system dates from the late ‘50s, and parts for it are no longer manufactured, so the maintenance office had to source a used one from eBay.

The bonds to pay off the middle school will retire in 2020. The tax rate for them now is $1.69, but it was as much as $2.15 per $1,000. That rate is only applied to properties in the former District 12. That district and District 9 merged in 2004 to form District 21.

On May 1, a committee of board members will meet with a pollster to formulate questions for a new survey.

A survey a year ago found public support for paying more money to build new school buildings, with a new high school nudging the pack as the top choice to be built first.

The polling done a year ago was highly conceptual. The new polling will have dollar figures and locations attached to questions.

Other steps for the board to take include hiring a consultant to guide the election process.

The board discussed how to phrase a poll question about where to build a new high school. Board member Ernie Blatz favors building on the Wahtonka Campus, but said, “We really haven’t said that yet. We haven’t said the high school is going to be on the Wahtonka site.”

“So let’s test it,” Armstrong said, referring to polling.

Board Chair Carol Roderick said she favors building at the site of the current district administration building, which is on the hill south of the Wahtonka campus. It would make the high school a visible showpiece for the town, and would free up more of the Wahtonka campus area for more sports fields.

A possible scenario is to have parts of the high school on both the Wahtonka site and the district administration site.

The final wording will be left to the pollster, but the board kicked around ideas of poll questions that measured public support for a high school located “on either side of West 10th” at the Wahtonka location.

A political action committee will form to promote the bond authority measure, and Armstrong said the economic development committee of The Dalles Area Chamber of Commerce was “ready to activate” whenever the board was ready.

The facilities committee process was a series of meetings open to the public to look at various aspects of replacing the district’s buildings. A recent meeting found replacing the high school was easily the top priority.

The facilities committee’s work is done, and the next step is forming master planning groups for each building, plus a possible early learning center, as well as design groups to dive into the design features of each building.

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