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St. Helens school board ramps up for May bond

The St. Helens School Board on Monday decided unanimously to go after a school maintenance bond in the May primary, setting in motion a four-month public information campaign aimed at winning over a stubborn set of historical nay voters.

Analysis of the failed November bond, valued at $26 million, has led board members and district administration to question whether ramped-up marketing and public education efforts have been effective.

Board member Bill Crist said he expects the district to enlist the help of an outside bond consultant, an options exercised in the past, to steer the bond effort.

'I don't think we can do it ourselves,' Crist said. 'I just don't.'

The May bond will likely see an increase from $26 million to roughly $28 million, an increase of around 1 percent per month that accounts for rising construction costs.

Board Chair Terri Burns admitted there is too little time to effect what she called a 'culture change' as to how the community perceives the district before the May election.

'We need to go after those no voters, which is going to be longer term,' Burns said.

Both the May primary and the follow-up November general election have appealing attributes for the district's purposes, however. For one, both involve presidential-level elections, spurring the creation of voter pamphlets for the county.

In the lead up to the November 2006 bond attempt, the last time voter pamphlets were produced for the county, the district neglected to file bond language in time to be included, a shortcoming many felt worked against the bond's chances for success.

Also expected to work in the district's favor is a return to a 'neighborhood' elementary school system next year, running grades K-6 at Columbia City, Lewis and Clark and McBride elementary schools.

The return echoes an overwhelming community sentiment that disfavors the current configuration, and could translate into positive voter numbers for the district.

In other district news:

Following a presentation on the Talented and Gifted student programs within the district, the school board said it wants to explore funding possibilities to help meet the needs of so-called TAG students.

At present, the program is mandated by state and federal law, though local districts do not receive any funding for operations.

'It's been a bone of contention for some time that it's mandated and unfunded,' said Judy Valpiani, principal at Columbia City Elementary School.

The district board voted to endorse a letter sponsored by the National School Boards Association intended to pressure federal legislators to change the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. The legislation targeted by this endorsement is the No Child Left Behind Improvement Act of 2007, or HR 648, which would provide states more flexibility in meeting the act's goals.

Board members also expressed their intent to draft a district-specific letter to federal legislators outlining the problems with the federal act and how it has negatively impacted the district.

'I really would like to see us craft our own letter and send it federal,' said board member Rebecca Wallace. For more on the proposed legislation, go to www.nsba.org/nclbcampaign .

A public meeting on the boundary limits for the new neighborhood schools configuration is planned for Feb. 7 at 6:30 p.m. at the middle school.