Max Denning

While school districts in the state’s metropolitan areas pass high-priced bonds with regularity, communities in rural parts of the state must include only what is “absolutely necessary” to pass bonds — and even then it most often is a struggle.

In Eastern Oregon, it often takes two decades (or, in Baker’s case, seven) for a school district to pass a bond. In 2014, the La Grande School District passed a school bond on its third try in eight years. In 2016, the Umatilla School District passed a bond on its third try in 10 years. In Baker City, voters rejected a bond in 2018 for the third time in 12 years. Meanwhile, some urban school districts are passing bonds every eight to 12 years.

In November 2018, 11 Oregon school districts had bonds on local ballots — six of which passed. The districts were scattered across the state, from Ashland to Astoria to Baker City. Ashland School District asked for $109 million from its taxpayers to raze and rebuild a new middle school, completely renovate an elementary school built in 1948 and upgrade technological infrastructure across the district. Although Ashland had approved a bond in 2006 to rebuild another elementary school, the 2018 bond passed overwhelmingly, with almost 69 percent of the vote.

The Baker School District, on the other hand, was asking for $48 million to build a new elementary school and renovate its high school to allow seventh and eighth grades to be on the same campus. Baker City taxpayers hadn’t approved a school bond since 1948, and this time around a bond in Baker failed again, receiving just 31.6 percent of the votes — marking 70 years since the school district last successfully passed a bond.

While Baker School District’s inability to get a bond passed by voters is an extreme even in Eastern Oregon, where a distinction may be more easily made is what school leaders decide to include in their bonds. Heidi Sipe, superintendent for the Umatilla School District, said when her team was deciding what to include in its $10.5 million 2016 bond they looked at what maintenance they absolutely couldn’t put off.

“We made sure we were only seeking absolutely necessary improvements,” Sipe said. “The majority of those were system improvements: HVAC, plumbing. Things that absolutely needed to happen.”

Sipe recognizes the economic differences between taxpayers in her school district, which she called one of the poorest in the state, and more wealthy districts in urban parts of the state.

“The thing I’ve seen about Umatilla time and time again is when there’s a need, people will absolutely step up and make personal sacrifices for the benefit of kids,” Sipe said. “But it’s important for (the school district) to remember we better not ask unless we truly need it and we better be careful with the amount we’re asking for, because we never want to take advantage of that kindness.”

Doug Hislop, former superintendent of the Imbler School District, said when he helped Imbler pass its bond in 2010 to construct a new elementary school, he knew he needed to spend the money wisely.

“You don’t want to have a Taj Mahal when you get done, if you tell them you’re going to build a functional, efficient facility,” Hislop said.

The Oregon Department of Education does not fund school maintenance except through the Oregon School Capital Improvement Matching Program, in which the state is willing to give funds to school districts that pass bonds. In 2018, the state provided six school districts with a total of $27.77 million for capital improvement. Umatilla School District received $4 million in state matching funds in 2016, which Sipe called integral to the passing of the 2016 bond.

“The matching dollars were essential not only to receiving the bond, but even in the decision to seek the bond,” she said.

Sipe also cited the small taxpayer base rural districts pull from to raise funds. For instance, to receive $10.5 million from taxpayers in the 2016 school bond, property owners would be taxed at a rate of $3.133 per $1,000 of assessed value until 2035. When Portland Public Schools passed its $790 million construction bond in 2017, the bond increased taxes by 68 cents per $1,000 in property value over 30 years. Umatilla’s bond paid for the upgrade of a 100-year-old boiler room among a number of other projects, while PPS’s bond paid for the modernization of six of the district’s high schools as well as significant seismic and safety upgrades.

George Mendoza, superintendent of the La Grande School District, said he would prefer if the state offered grants to school districts that had necessary maintenance projects.

“In a perfect world, if I was able to say, ‘I don’t have enough money to get air conditioning for our school,’ the state would say, ‘Hey, air conditioning is important, so we’re going to make sure you have money for that.’ That would be nice, (but) we don’t have that,” Mendoza said.

In other states, maintenance projects are funded at both the local and state level. In Washington, the state provided more than $312 million to school districts for construction projects.

The state’s reliance on local taxpayers for necessary maintenance in school districts creates what Jim Green, executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association, calls the state’s “next great equity issue.”

Green, who is also a Salem-Keizer school board member, said the state puts “almost nothing” into K-12 school facilities, and he believes there are times when the state should be offering more assistance to struggling school districts.

“We think the state should be stepping up to help those districts that just aren’t going to have the ability to get their taxpayers to approve what is necessary to bring (learning) environments … up to speed,” Green said. “That’s probably going to be the next big debate, the quality of facilities and the equity of services that shouldn’t be pre-determined by your zip code.”

While there are not currently any legislative bills addressing additional funding for school maintenance projects, Green said he has heard the idea being discussed.

“(The governor’s office) knows that there is a need there,” Green said.

In her proposed budget for the 2019-2021 biennium, Gov. Kate Brown proposed $100 million be invested into the state capitol investment program for local districts for capital costs including construction, improvement, remodeling, equipment purchase and maintenance and repair of facilities. She also proposed another $100 million for the Seismic Rehabilitation Grant Program, a competitive grant program for the seismic rehabilitation of public buildings, particularly public schools.

In her inaugural address on Monday, Brown mentioned the need for more investment in education. “After years of underinvestment, it’s going to take more than just additional funding to bring our schools back to a level we can be proud of,” Brown said. “We have failed our students of color and we have left rural Oregon behind. Now is the time to close that opportunity gap.”

A theme in education oft-repeated by school district leaders, and even by former President Barack Obama, is the idea that a “zip code should not be your destiny.” In an address mainly regarding the Fair Housing Act, Obama returned to the phrase.

“We don’t guarantee equal outcomes, but we do strive to guarantee an equal shot at opportunity — in every neighborhood, for every American,” Obama said in his July 2015 address.

In Oregon, where state funds for school construction are limited, a student’s zip code may decide if they are going to school in a brand-new building or in a building heated with a 100-year-old boiler. But that doesn’t deter school leaders like Sipe.

“It really is important to recognize it does take more (to educate students in low-income areas). We are constantly writing grants, we are constantly asking more and more of the adults in our community,” Sipe said. “I was proud to raise both of my kids here — pre-kindergarten through 12th grade — and both of them went on to be successful adults. I think in large part it’s because we refuse to let zip code determine destiny here.”