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Committee backs $299 million Gresham-Barlow school bond


An advisory committee is recommending the Gresham-Barlow School Board ask voters in November to approve a $299 million bond to upgrade district buildings.

If the school board agrees, the bond would be the largest ever proposed in the Gresham area and cost homeowners $2.97 per $1,000 of assessed or $742 per year on a $250,000 home.

The bond would be the district’s second attempt in three years. In 2013 voters soundly rejected a $210 million bond 42 percent to 58 percent.

The 33-member committee was unanimous in its recommendation Tuesday night.

Under the committee’s recommendation, changes to Gresham and Sam Barlow high schools would be half of the total; spending on elementary schools is 25 percent.

The district polled voters twice on their preferences and released the results of the second survey Tuesday night.

It showed that 72 percent of voters felt the most pressing need was repairing and upgrading buildings throughout the district at a cost of $38.6 million. Making energy improvements at a cost of $8 million and adding classroom space at a cost of $7 million were ranked a high priority by 68 percent.

The poll showed lukewarm support for replacing East and North Gresham elementary schools, at $29 million per school. Only 46 percent of those polled said it was a high priority. Not in the recommendations were previously proposed changes to West Gresham Grade School.

Improvements to athletic facilities and fields fared worse — only 28 percent ranked $8 million in improvements as a high priority.

Despite the poll results, the committee decided to keep the replacement of the East and North elementary schools in its recommendation.

The school board could make changes to any recommendation if it feels some are unrealistic or the bond total too high.

The art of bond proposals

The district is struggling to find the sweet spot for a bond — the amount voters will agree to pay in new taxes while allowing the district to protect or upgrade buildings.

School districts always have a longer list of building projects than voters are willing to pay for. They cut and alter projects and implore the community for support. But, how do administrators and board members know if they’ve hit the that magic number — undertaking the maximum number of projects at a cost acceptable to voters?

“You know in the election if you didn’t,” Gresham-Barlow Superintendent Jim Schlachter told The Outlook in an interview.

The district started with ambitious plans to replace three schools and upgrade athletic facilities and technology. A facilities committee came up with a list of projects that totaled $490 million. “But it won’t be that,” Schlachter said.

But do folks in the community really understand the condition of the schools or building needs the same way district officials, staff and parents? What happens when opinion polls conflict with a list that must be done?

Schlachter acknowledged that even staff in one building doesn’t know much about the condition of a school across town. And community members are rarely in buildings.

Schlachter said while the district would not include something in the bond if it jeopardized passage, “There are things that don’t poll well that just have to happen.”

But that has to be balanced with passing the bond.

With “a failed bond, nothing is going to happen. You have to come up with something that will pass,” Schlachter said. “The prioritization work is really, really hard ... wicked hard.”

The goal, of course, is to “take the highest priority issues that fit within the framework of what voters will approve,” he said.

“It is more about the specific list of projects ... and if they meet the needs of the community” than it is a particular dollar value. “People want to know what they are funding is what they wanted.”

To help determine what voters want, the district formed the 33-member bond committee, worked with community groups, held public meetings and commissioned the two polls.

Engaging various stakeholders “has to start really early,” Schlachter said.

Schlachter and other administrators started in November 2014 by visiting the district’s 18 schools and discussing teacher and staff needs. Administrators wanted to find out “to what extent is the facility helping or hurting student learning,” he said.

Last June Schlachter started discussing building needs with the community.

“It is really important to listen to people and not get hung up on what I think or my cabinet thinks the bond should contain,” he said. We’ve got 18 school communities. They want to know that their needs are being addressed. Parents aren’t just looking at their current school, they look at where their kids are going all the way through, he said.

The larger community understands that school plays a part in the community’s life, Schlachter said. Homeowners understand if the schools are good their property values will rise and the local economy will be better.

Once a list is made and a bond size agreed on, “how to pass it is a different conversation,” Schlachter said. “Then what the board does is to try to make the community understand what they are asking for.”

Ultimately, Schlachter said going through the bond process is valuable for everyone, even if it doesn’t pass.

“We have a lot of good conversations about what matters in education,” he said. “For this community to have those conversations is great.”