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High price will doom Gresham-Barlow bond

Next week, the Gresham-Barlow School Board may arrive at a final dollar amount and funding formula for a bond measure heading for the November 2016 general election ballot.

In January, a citizens advisory committee recommended a $299 million bond. The proposal was as hard to swallow then as it is today. At that level, the bond amount would be the largest put forward by any East County school district or city government ... ever.

In order to envision a path to success, the School Board would hang its hope on two assumptions:

n First, that in 2016 the economy has rebounded enough to mollify fears regarding joblessness, foreclosure and the basic ability of people to pay their property taxes. (When patrons turned down a 2013 bond request for $210 million, the region was still climbing out of the Great Recession); and,

n Second, that registered Democrats will turn out in great numbers for the November general election, the same ballot that contains the U.S. presidential election. Presidential elections tend to bring out more Democrats, who generally vote more favorably on school-funding measures.

But oddsmakers would say even an improved economy and generous Democrats won’t be enough to overcome the aversion to the hefty price of this bond. Recent history proves that point: In November 2013, the last time the Gresham-Barlow patrons voted on a bond, Democrats outpaced Republicans in turnout (43 percent Democrat turnout vs. 33 percent Republican), but the bond still went down in a fiery defeat with 60 percent of voters saying “no.”

Then consider last month’s results of bond elections in nearby districts, and you’ll start seeing a pattern. Voters in the neighboring Centennial School District defeated a much smaller bond ($85 million) that would have reduced overcrowding and paid for significant safety improvements. Voters also rejected a Mt. Hood Community College bond ($125 million) that would have allowed for significant improvements in job training for tech industries, a key component of maintaining — and even growing— the local economy. None of those arguments were persuasive enough to win over a majority of voters.

Very clearly, the Gresham-Barlow School District faces an almost impossible task of passing a $299 million bond. The cost is too unaffordable at a time when voters are already inclined to say no.

None of this has anything to do with the underlying need within the Gresham-Barlow School District. Every item on the to-do list is justified from the perspectives of improved academics and student and staff safety and morale.

n Yes, teachers at East Gresham Elementary should not need to talk in raised voices over the incessant drone of the HVAC system; and yes, the school’s playground should be fenced to keep unknown adults from taking shortcuts across campus from the adjacent park during school hours.

n Yes, teachers and students at North Gresham Elementary do need more space, given the high growth forecast for the neighborhoods that feed the school. (And where the heck is the front door to the building?) And then there are bigger problems associated with providing a modern education. The school has run out of space for meeting with students in small groups for more specialized instruction. The school uses space just inside exterior doors for storage.

n Yes, the beloved West Gresham Elementary has outlived its usefulness as a public school. It fails at so many levels — accessibility to people with disabilities, heating, cooling. This school, at more than 93 years old, was built long before there were concerns about stopping armed intruders. The cramped space in classrooms is a deterrent to student success.

n Yes, Gresham High School has serious problems. With an antiquated heating system, students are asked to focus on learning in a chilly environment during the winter, or in sweltering heat on the warmest days of spring. Did you know that there are at least 70 doors at the school that provide access to the outdoors, many of them easy points of entry for an intruder? Did you know that Gresham High has an open campus because it cannot accommodate seating for all of its students during the lunch hour? That translates to an insecure campus, and the inability for administrators to account for students’ whereabouts once they leave the campus for lunch.

The list goes on with necessary changes specified at each school, from Deep Creek-Damascus to East Orient. But this measure won’t be decided solely on its merits. The outcome will be about price.

The most recent cost estimates, shared with the School Board on May 26, range from $1.85 to $2.65 per $1,000 of assessed property value. Those numbers are influenced on a bond payoff of 20-25 years. These are better numbers than what was initially calculated in 2015.

But even at $1.85 per $1,000 of assessed value, the owner of a home assessed at $250,000 would pay $462 a year. At $2.65 per $1,000, the cost escalates to $662.

Even progressive voters are likely to wince at those costs.

An elderly couple living on Social Security and a modest pension would have a difficult time saying “yes,” regardless of the justifiable need in the schools.

Even people with steady employment, and who earn decent incomes, will question the ability to pay for this bond when stacked up against the rest of their monthly expenses.

At $299 million, the citizens-committee recommendation is asking for too much. If the School Board follows this recommendation, it’s setting the district up for failure.

Our recommendation is that the School Board consider limiting this bond to a level no greater than the 2013 proposal. Even at a reduced amount, getting voter approval for a bond measure will be an uphill battle.

The work at Gresham High School is long overdue, and should take the highest priority. Additional space should be created at North and East Gresham elementary schools to accommodate the relocation of students from West Gresham Elementary.

Beyond that, the School Board must make the hard choices that will significantly reduce the cost of this bond. We know that puts the board in a difficult position, stuck between an ever-growing list of needed improvements and a public that is reluctant to add to its tax burden.

But it would be better to increase the odds of passage by reducing the overall cost, than to stubbornly stick with a highly expensive bond that almost certainly will fail.