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Schools ask $10 million question

STRATEGY -- With a bond levy looming, Forest Grove School Board members mull how deep into their pockets voters are willing to go

A crackerjack sales team will soon be going door-to-door in Forest Grove.

Instead of peddling vinyl siding or mortgage refinancing packages, they'll be hawking a bond levy the local school board wants to place on the November general election ballot.

The only question is: how much will the district's sales pitch cost you?

Approval of a levy would drum up tax money to pay for new school construction and improvements to the district's 10 campuses and three support buildings.

Board members tried to decide between levy amounts of $39 million and $49 million during an afternoon work session last Wednesday.

They spent more than an hour discussing a telephone survey, taken July 10-17, which gauged community support for a capital construction levy.

The official vote won't come until later this month, but board members were leaning toward the higher number, despite advice from Mark Nelson of the Public Affairs Council in Salem, who conducted the survey of 374 registered voters,.

With 52 percent of the respondents saying they favored the $49 million levy, board members agreed to set their sights on that amount.

'I think if we're going to do it, let's do it,' said Dawn Pratt, the board's vice-chairwoman.

The board is scheduled to vote on the issue at its Aug. 14 meeting. Deadline for filing a ballot measure with the Washington County Elections Office is Sept. 7.

No 'slam dunk'

Nelson told the board his research indicated that a $39 million levy was more likely to pass, because the opinions of those surveyed 'shifted' between the two choices depending on the questions asked.

'Neither one (of the levies) is going to be a slam dunk,' he cautioned. 'We didn't get a ringing endorsement.'

Nelson, Schofield and Superintendent Jack Musser spelled out the difference between the two levy options.

For $49 million, the district could replace Joseph Gale Elementary School, add cafeteria and gymnasium space to Forest Grove High School, expand Tom McCall East Upper Elementary School and complete renovation projects at Harvey Clarke, Echo Shaw, Cornelius and Gales Creek elementary schools.

The funds would also remodel the Community Alternative Learning Center, which houses students whose learning styles don't conform to more mainstream educational approaches.

Spending $10 million less, the district could 'do all of the above,' said Nelson, except the remodeled gym at Forest Grove High 'would be smaller and there would be no new locker rooms or concessions stand.'

Competing measures

Musser reminded the board that voters would likely select from among a number of competing ballot measures this fall.

'The City of Forest Grove will float a public safety levy, and the county will have a public safety levy and a library levy,' he noted.

Between now and early September, board members will brainstorm ways to make their sales pitch to residents.

During the last bond campaign, for a $39.4 million levy approved in 2000, the district spent $5,500 in advertising and other promotions, said Connie Potter, public information coordinator.

'I think we can do it,' said Mike Steele, who is in his fourth term on the board. 'A strong case can be made to support the $49 million.'

Chairwoman Susan Winterbourne was more circumspect.

'The (high school) gym is going to be a hard sell, but the larger bond measure still makes some good sense,' she said.

Winterbourne added that she intended to 'devour' the results of the survey and mull over the master plan recommendations before voting on the bond proposal later this month.

Board member Shawn Vilhauer, who served on the master plan committee earlier this spring, appeared ready to go.

'I'm in strong support of the $49 million,' said Vilhauer. 'It covers just what we basically need.'

The first thing the board must do, he said, is to recruit a citizens committee to talk the issue up around town. 'We really only have about 90 days to get out there and make this happen,' noted Vilhauer.

The master plan group analyzed the district's facilities needs and came up with recommendations designed to accommodate student enrollment growth over the next 10 years.

District projections indicate the district will need to provide classroom space for 350 more pupils by the 2016-17 academic year.

GO AHEAD, DO THE LEVY MATH

The Forest Grove School District's current tax rate is $8.14 per $1,000 of assessed value, including $4.91 per $1,000 for the general fund and $3.23 for bonds. So, the owner of a home assessed at $250,000 pays $2,036 per year in school taxes. If voters approve a $49 million school bond levy in November, that same homeowner's tax rate would increase by $1.96 per $1,000 of property value, tacking on $490 to his or her tax bill. Passage of a $39 million levy would increase school taxes by $1.56 per $1,000, adding about $390 to the annual tax bill of a resident with a $250,000 home.

LEVY TALK

Board members will discuss recommendations for a fall bond levy Aug. 7 at 5 p.m. and vote on the issue during their regular meeting Aug. 14. Both sessions will be held in the school district administration building, 1728 Main St.