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Gresham-Barlow bond: Community needs to think this one over

The Gresham-Barlow School District is asking its citizens to approve a $210 million bond levy increasing the property tax on the average home by about $264 per year.

The campaign in favor of these taxes will focus almost exclusively on need. The quality of the existing buildings, whether upgrades or new construction will decrease future maintenance expenses, and whether classrooms are overcrowded will all be brought to the voters in stark detail.

But the need for upgraded, remodeled or new construction buildings should only be a part of the consideration. Residents should consider how their districts have spent money in the past, whether there is planning for future facilities, the strength of the economy and how the district has responded to the weak economy.

Gresham-Barlow operates a district with total funds of $135 million for the 2013-2014 fiscal year. I looked at the district website for a copy of the budget. It wasn’t online for review, so you have to secure a printed copy.

The Gresham-Barlow budget shows a lack of planning for future facilities. There is a Capital Projects fund, but it has only approximately $225,000 in it for construction projects throughout the district. Building maintenance, grounds maintenance and unspecified “maintenance” are budgeted for $7.5 million. There is no line item or savings of any kind for replacing buildings long-term.

I expect the campaign will — in part — focus on Gresham High School’s age (nearly 100 years old). Over the course of the century, or even during the strong economies in the late 1980s, mid-1990s and early 2000s, some funds should have been saved to replace these aging buildings.

However, other than selling increased taxes, there appears to be no plan or proposal for constructing replacement buildings.

On the taxpayer side of the bond measure, private sector employment has been devastated during the Great Recession. As reported by the U.S. Labor Department, the number of Americans participating in the labor market is at its lowest point in 35 years, with only 63 percent of Americans working.

The statewide unemployment rate in Oregon as reported by the Employment Department is 8 percent, compared to the national average of 7.4 percent.

Thousands of our neighbors cannot find work, can only find part-time work or have taken significant reductions in pay over the past five years. In short, the economy remains stubbornly weak and East County residents have been hit particularly hard.

East County residents also have had a front row seat for dramatic and unfortunate labor problems.

Little more than a year ago, school was interrupted for a short time for a labor strike. For several years, we’ve seen the school budget balanced in part by furlough days, shortening the school year even though statewide it is already one of the shortest in the country.

Teachers have been laid off, with a 14 percent reduction in total personnel since the 2007-2008 school year, leaving expanded class sizes.

Employees will receive raises this year, both cost of living adjustments (intending to offset the effect of inflation) and step increases (pay raises based on time of hire until the employee reaches the top of the pay scale). These range from 1 percent to 5 percent depending on the type of employee and whether it is a COLA or a step pay increase.

In addition, for yet another year, there will be furlough days in which our community will receive fewer services from the district. Class sizes also are likely to be impacted as 38 licensed employees will be laid off.

All of these facts raise some troubling questions regarding this bond measure.

The district has no plan for school replacement or capital improvements other than increased taxes. When revenues are tight, the district cuts services, increases classes and reduces the already embarrassingly short school year while preserving pay raises for the employees who remain.

These cuts hurt the most vulnerable members of our district the hardest, the single-parent who can scarcely afford childcare for the summer; the child who needs a longer school year to catch up; and the child who needs a smaller class size in order to avoid falling through the cracks.

When revenues are stronger, in a strong economy, the district has failed to make savings for the purpose of replacing these buildings that the community has already spent money to build.

The bond contains no assurances for the community that these problems will be addressed. There are no safeguards requiring future savings for buildings, guaranteeing a full school year or limiting class sizes.

In other words, the district’s proposal asks for a tax increase without giving East County residents any assurances that they will receive better financial management in the future.

Matt Wand of Troutdale rites a monthly column for The Outlook. He is an attorney with a law practice based in Gresham since 2006. He has served as a Troutdale City Councilor and state representative from East County. He lives in Troutdale with his wife and three children.



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