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Money or merge: Does Gaston school bond come down to that?

Supporters hope district's No. 1 spot on the waiting list earns $4 million grant

When ballots arrive in mailboxes next week, Gaston voters will have a $12 million decision to make.

Gaston School District supporters are asking property owners to pay hundreds of dollars a year for the next three decades to tear down a decrepit gym built in 1926 and replace it with a multi-level building to house a performance stage, gym, restrooms, locker rooms, storage and classrooms.

The project would also tear down six outdated portable classrooms, revamp the parking lot and construct a covered play area.

Total cost is estimated at $15.8 million.

The $12 million, 30-year bond would cost property owners in the district $2.13 per assessed $1,000. For a $200,000 property, that’s about $35.50 a month or about $426 a year.

School leaders hope to cover the remaining $4 million with help from Senate Bill 447, which offers grants for capital projects at school districts across the state through May 2017.

A statewide needs assessment of school districts ranked Gaston one step too low to win a grant, but it’s first on the waiting list, said School Board Member Clinton Nelson.

Because a district can’t collect grant money unless it passes a bond measure, a single bond failure somewhere else could mean Gaston gets the $4 million — but only if it passes this bond next month.

Without the grant, the district can still pay for most of the project, said Gaston School District Superintendent Susan McKenzie, but school board members would have to cut out some elements.

That’s why school leaders decided to change the bond plan from an original request for $9.4 million over 20 years to $12 million over 30 years — so they aren’t relying on the grant to make the project possible.

In addition, this bond would require less money each year from taxpayers than the 20-year option would have.

And it calculates for expected new taxes from new people moving in, McKenzie said, meaning the tax burden could lessen over time.

“Any growth above the calculated rate is what lowers the bond rate for all of our tax payers,” Nelson said. If Gaston Heights takes off as planned, “it would dramatically lower the bond cost for everyone.”

Concerned about cost

Still, a survey conducted by an outside agency revealed that while residents largely support the idea of a new facility, they were concerned about the cost, McKenzie said.

At a recent Gaston City Council meeting, Councilor Christin Jeffries also commented that $15 million seemed high. According to McKenzie, it’s more expensive to build schools and other public structures than homes because of stricter and pricier permits and regulations.

In addition, the district is required to add more parking spaces if it constructs the new building, she said.

Mayor Tony Hall and Councilors Jerry Spaulding and Don Richter voiced support for the bond. Councilor David Meeker made no comment. Councilor Richard Sager seemed to oppose the bond when he asked why projects like these always have to fall back onto the taxpayers.

Nelson and fellow school board member Karen Fordyce both endorsed the bond at the meeting. Nelson said he thought $35.50 a month was affordable, comparing it to one night out with the kids he’d be willing to sacrifice.

As such a small school district, Gaston has had trouble winning financial help over the decades. The last time voters pitched in was in the 1990s when they approved $500,000 to add elementary school classrooms and do some cement work, McKenzie said.

Laurelwood-area resident Brian Walter, who has a daughter in first grade, told the council he would like to see the bond pass because Gaston schools are the unifying center of the community. “The one thing that brings the town together is the school,” he said. “This isn’t a question of whether or not we’ll have to pay a bond. It’s a question of whether we are going to pay it for Gaston or for some other school district. A no vote on this bond is simply a yes vote for a bond in another community.”

That’s because if the facilities continue to deteriorate, he said, the school district would likely eventually close and parents would have to bus their kids somewhere else, such as the Forest Grove or Yamhill-Carlton school districts.

McKenzie wouldn’t say whether merging with another district would be the inevitable outcome of a failed bond measure.

“I’ve lived here almost my entire life and since the ‘60s we’ve been hearing this ‘merge’ word. A merge would not be my first choice at all,” McKenzie said. “I think Gaston has done a good job of working within budget constraints and providing a quality education.”

Space not the issue

Gaston’s enrollment has gone up and down. In 1994, the district had 720 students. It declined around 2008, with the economic downturn, McKenzie said, and was 457 in 2009.

It’s now up to 564 students, with 20 percent from outside the district, helped by an open enrollment law in 2013 which allows students to leave their home district and attend another.

But while open enrollment students bring $6,911 per student in state funding along with them, that money goes toward educating students, not improving facilities. There’s no way to collect property taxes from the out-of-district families to help pay for this project.

In addition, nearly 9 percent of Gaston’s students are homeless, so their families wouldn’t contribute to the bond either.

McKenzie said open-enrollment students help make the district more financially sustainable. And she stresses that the improvements are needed not so much because of space concerns as because the buildings are in such poor condition.

Contrary to the idea that the district is bursting at the seams, she said, the only space that is currently too small is the cafeteria, where students have to rotate through short lunch breaks that start at 10:30 a.m.

Other than that, there is still room for growth, she said, which could come in handy as Gaston welcomes two new subdivisions that are expected to add roughly 300 new homes inside the city limits over the next few decades.

Maintenance of district facilities will be an ongoing issue, but the district has received some additional assistance elsewhere. This month, it was awarded a $1.4 million grant to make seismic upgrades to the 65-year-old elementary school, such as shoring up the roof and walls, Nelson said.

The district also received $360,000 to build a new steel-frame barn to house Career and Technical Education classes and bolster the school’s business program.

If this bond fails, the district could potentially try to pass another one on the November or May 2017 ballot, but it would also have to re-apply for a grant, Nelson said. And “the odds of being this close to receiving the grant funds are not favorable.”

Also, costs continue to rise every year, he said, so the district would get “more bang for its buck” if it started the project sooner.

Without help, “at some point the portables and old gym won’t be useable,” McKenzie said. “So we just need to ask ourselves, ‘Do we want to keep the Gaston School District here’?”