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Guest opinion: A first-hand look at bond oversight

Former Silverton Mayor Kyle Palmer shares his perspectives on a $138 million facilities bond for the Silver Falls School District, to be decided during the Nov. 7 election.

Palmer served on the advisory committee that helped formulate the current bond proposal and is also on the committee that would oversee the bond if it is approved by voters. Palmer also served on the bond oversight committee for Phase II construction of Silverton High School between 2006 and 2009.

There has been much discussion on social media and in person, regarding the upcoming SFSD Construction Bond Measure that we will vote on in November.

As we draw closer to that time when residents of our School District mark those ballots on this extremely important measure, the proposed Bond that would build a new Middle School and provide “Warm, Safe, and Dry” upgrades to every other school in the district, it’s also a great time to attempt a rational and respectful discussion about what this will do, what this won’t do, and the implications of voting yes or no.

Three of the four of us recently served on the Bond Advisory Committee that ultimately referred the recommendation of this measure to the Silver Falls School Board, which isn’t to say that any of the three of us, or that any of the 20 Committee members felt now, or then, that it is perfect. A perfect Bond doesn’t exist.

We’ve heard scores of folks say that they support our schools, AND the need for a bond, but simply feel that this is not the right bond. What we’ve not yet heard from any of those folks though, is what – in their viewpoint – would be the right bond. Such as what they feel shouldn’t be in this one, or what is lacking from this one, or what their hesitations are specifically? It’s fair of us to ask, and it’s also fair of those folks to not answer, but if they DO indeed support our schools AND the need for a bond, then by not sharing their insights, they ensure that the bond they want will never occur.

Meanwhile, the cost of these much-needed improvements continue to rise higher, and higher. This one single effect will all but guarantee that we will either never see these improvements made, or we’ll do so at some point in the future at a cost far larger than what is currently proposed.

To look at this closer, it’s sadly necessary to re-examine the recent history of our school bonds as there are so many misconceptions that simply won’t die, and seem to influence at least some voters. The starter school bond was passed in 1996 (by a margin of 140 votes, with 160 under votes) to build what is commonly referred to as Phase One of the new high school (sorry Dixon), and many people now believe they were duped into thinking they were voting for a whole high school and only found out later that it only accommodated the Freshman class.

Respectfully, we would say that we have personally reviewed the marketing materials, publicity handouts, and coverage of that bond, and it was made emphatically clear that it was not only just Phase One, but also why it was. This was prior to the unification of the multiple small school districts that now make up our unique rural school system, and the $15M asked for and approved was simply the maximum bonding capacity of what was then known as the Silverton District 7J. In other words, they couldn’t have asked for enough to build the whole school at one time. It was always, always, always the expectation that a second bond would be needed at a later date to make the building a fully new high school (sorry again Dixon).

Like a bad rumor that spreads from one end of town to the other, and back, a number of people have been permanently convinced otherwise, but it’s really time to let that go. It didn’t happen that way and there is evidence available for those who need it.

Fast forward to 2006, when after a couple of failed attempts to pass a high school completion bond, voters were finally ready to consider the hardships put upon high schoolers who had to switch buildings all day long and miss valuable instruction time. By the slim margin (362 votes in Marion County) that we believe will always be the best case scenario for a school bond of any kind in our district, the One High School campaign was successful, getting a $47.5M plan to finish the new high school (still sorry Dixon) approved.

There continues to be waves of inaccurate information whenever the school board, staff, or anyone else discusses how to solve the other building issues around the district. Some still cite what they see as the great bait and switch of Phase One, completely disregarding factual information, while others just distrust the details of any proposed bond, others complain that the high school completion was a mess of overspending and bad decision making, and some simply don’t trust the district to do what they say they will with their money.

The public should know a few key things about the process of carrying out the bond of 2006: 1. The citizen oversight committee had very detailed and very respectful analysis, and regular debate about every single detail of finishing the high school; 2. School district staff, including both Superintendents who were involved, played a supporting role, along with the architect and contractor, in providing the citizen panel with information to help make decisions, but never tried to influence that committee or make the decisions for them, and 3. after rounds and rounds of value engineering, debating costs vs. investing in trades training that was being cut from other districts, and testimony from anyone who would provide any, that committee finished a school and returned around $1M of unused money back to the voters of the school district.

That is a rarity and speaks to the fact that bond funds can be spent very conservatively and, in the public’s, best interests.  It was an exercise in impactful citizen input and should have been a symbol of the type of trust that can exist between taxpayers and the taxing bodies they fund. But somehow, once again, some people just remember things differently than they were.

We personally listened to a consistent message during the 2006 campaign, with regard to the old high school (not really that sorry anymore Dixon ), and we can probably almost quote it. The two-story section is unusable. That’s what voters were told and that never changed. It was also made very clear that the single-story sections of the Schlador Street building, as well as the gymnasium, were very usable, and would be used for some reorganization of in-Town grades. That’s what voters were told and that never changed. It was a good use of the building then. But that was 17 years ago.

Most people by now understand that the construction of a new Middle School (though the gym and sports facilities will remain) at the site of the old high school is a major chunk of the proposed bond. Silverton Middle School, by far, educates more students in grades 6-8 than any other school in the district, and has been operating in an environment that is poorly suited for kids preparing to enter high school, or kids of any other age. Structurally, even the portions that were usable 17 years ago are now failing – rainwater has poured into the building directly on large electrical panels, and classes are held on opposite sides of the condemned two story portion that was sealed off years ago. It is less a school than a collection of classrooms that coincidentally share some relative geographical proximity.

We can’t imagine that anyone whose children have recently attended SMS, or soon will, would disagree that the school is no longer suitable.

Unfortunately, one of the most unique and attractive things about our school district is also a major barrier to bond success – not all children attend that school, and not all children attend any specific one of the other 9 schools that make up our in-town and rural learning network.  It can be an unproductive game of “what does this do for me” and “why should I pay for that” when voters consider a bond measure.

During the recent Bond Advisory Committee process, one member, very late in the process, did forcefully ask why it’s not been on the table to eliminate the rural school network. Financially, he’s not completely wrong, as there is some redundancy in operating a whole bunch of K-8 schools instead of a small group of “super schools,” but that too would never be approved by anything close to a majority, AND the cost of those “super schools” would far exceed the cost of this bond and the operational costs of the current school network. Many families have flocked to the smaller schools, regardless of where they live, seeking the benefits of that environment, while others clearly embrace the benefits of the K-5 and middle school formats in town. There is something for everyone in terms of the types of schools we have.

Additionally, many of the rural schools are also still predominantly populated with the latest generation of the many farming families that proudly make up much of Silverton’s history and character. As a rule of thumb, as the rural school district voters go, so goes any bond election. In many ways, doing nothing for those schools, OR doing only things for those schools, OR eliminating those schools, through the actions of any proposed bond would all have zero chance of passage and would be very damaging.

By no small coincidence, the last two successful bond measures both had the same thing in common – each of them were focused solely on the one school that all of our district students would eventually attend, Silverton High School. So how DO we address the district’s other needs?

It is VITAL that we understand that unlike cities, public school districts do not have much funding at all for maintaining buildings. State funding is a significant part of fueling the public education system, and districts are at the mercy of how that funding changes from year to year (it is most frequently reduced).  It is important to remember that there is no attendance fee for public school.

Throughout the listening sessions at each school recently, a term continued to be brought up: “deferred maintenance.” What that term usually means is maintenance that management has deliberately chosen to postpone in favor of spending that money on something else, subsequently leaving the needs to be addressed by someone else in the future.

With school districts, and especially ours, this is absolutely not the case. The district’s annual money available for building maintenance would not cover the needs of any one school, let alone all of them, and the thing that could be moved down the list of priorities in order to address more building needs would be your child’s classroom education.

So here we are. Voters are presented with a bond that addresses the biggest building-related crisis in the District by creating a new Middle School, and addresses a significant amount of needs (but nowhere near all) for every other school in the district, specifically following the bond focus of keeping our children Warm, Safe, and Dry.

The priorities of this bond were examined and debated over the course of several months and hours spent by a committee of citizen volunteers, in an effort to provide the best plan available and in an effort to provide a bond measure that has an opportunity to be approved.

Look, we get it – no one wants to pay for something if they don’t have to, and we know there are people in the school district who simply can’t afford all of the things that they have to pay for. We know that there are people who either never had kids in our school district, or maybe did at one time, and feel that they’d be paying for something they don’t personally feel the tangibility of. In huge numbers, there are people who are incredible ambassadors to many children’s programs but just don’t think this is the right plan. And finally, there are many who have shied away from these discussions because it’s “too political.”

We don’t see this, or really any school bond measure as being political, but we do recognize that the world is full of those who choose not to take a position, for fear of alienating those who don’t agree with that position.  If we have friends who would think less of us because we support a school bond, then we’d have to spend some time considering if they were really our friends.

The voters of our school district are currently paying for the high school completion bond of 2006, and will be for three more years. That bond rate is currently $2.02 per $1,000 of assessed property value (NOT market value) per year.

The cost of the proposed new bond is $3.62/$1,000 of assessed value and if passed, the payment structure will only add $1.60/1,000 of assessed value during the remaining three years of the current High School Bond, ensuring that the cost will be held to the same amount that the new bond will be once the High School Bond is retired. That’s a standard method of managing the end of one bond during the beginning of  another, and was also how the High School completion bond started out, while we paid off the remaining years of the Phase One bond.

If it seems to some of you that what this looks like is an ongoing, indefinite  obligation to pay something to keep our schools in good shape and functioning to keep turning out well educated members of society, we’d say you’re probably right. There simply is no other way. None.

Grants help, and the district has chased them, and landed several. It’s not enough. A fundamental reality is that our school district’s needs at this time are predictable, reasonable, and no different than other districts, though the burden on our taxpayers would be a lot easier to swallow if we had another 40-50k people living here. No thank you – we’ll happily pay our share and are happy that we don’t have a larger community just so we can pay less.

Our school district has attempted to get voter approval to do many needed things, with two bonds rejected since the High School Completion Bond was passed. It must be said that while those bonds weren’t nearly perfect, they would have accomplished things at a MUCH lower cost to the voters had they been passed, including work on the current middle school that may have held off the need for a new one, at least for a while.

If the current bond proposal is not approved, we will absolutely be saying that same thing in the future.

The questions facing each of us are very clear and increasingly simple:

Can we agree that these improvements are needed and that there is nothing in them that suggests extravagance?

Can we agree that the cost of all these needs get much higher with every successive unsuccessful bond attempt?

Can we agree that – in our wonderful democracy – we citizens have a responsibility to ensure that our children are well educated and in an environment that ensures their safety and minimum comfort?

We’ll leave you with this: if you are on the fence, please read this and other attempts to demonstrate the importance of a yes vote. If you’re opposed to the bond for specific reasons, please verify that your reasons reflect accuracy in terms of what is proposed. If you’re opposed to the bond because of cost, we can promise you that you’ll never see one for less money.

Please reconsider – this bond measure – THIS ONE will shape the district for years to come, either by approval or by failure. YOU have the opportunity to decide what future our children will have, and in which manner our district will be shaped.

As the parents of four former Silverton High alumni between us, as well as being alumni ourselves, we are urging you to stand up for kids when you open this ballot, and help us bring the district’s buildings up to the standards that our students need.

2002 Bond failed by 6 votes (High School Completion)

2006 Bond Passed by 362 votes $2.74/$1,000 of assessed value (High School Completion)

2013 Bond failed by 583 votes

$36.9M Bond to improve Schlador Street Campus to use as Middle School and to fund projects at every school $3.35/$1,000 of assessed value for 25 years.

2014 Bond failed by 862 votes $24.9M Bond to improve Schlador Street Campus for use as Middle School, to Fund in-town school projects and to fund security upgrades for all schools $3/$1,000 of assed value for 20 years.

Current proposal $3.62/$1,000 of assessed value for 26 years. Please note that the recent Bond Advisory Committee took action to change the original concept from $3.55/$1,000 of assessed value for 31 years, an action that lowered the bond’s projected interest cost to taxpayers by an estimated $50 million dollars. These are the types of decisions that your citizen representatives make on your behalf.

Sincerely,

Kevin Palmer SUHS Class of 1980

Kyle Palmer SUHS Class of 1984

Stacy Palmer SUHS Class of 1985

Julie Hannan-Palmer SUHS Class of 1986

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