Of those that attended Friday’s sessions about the proposed Hermiston school bond, many seemed to feel that the proposed changes are valid, while others are worried that tax increases are getting out of hand.
The $104 million bond would replace Rocky Heights and Highland Hills elementary schools, expand Hermiston High School and build a new school on district-owned property on Theater Lane. The bond would add 90 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to the $4.09 Hermiston residents already pay in education taxes.
Superintendent Fred Maiocco reminded voters that the tax will be shared as Hermiston continues to grow.
“As new businesses are added to the tax rolls, there will be more people to help with the tax burden,” he said.
The district is currently paying off two other bonds, one started in 2004 to fund the construction of Desert View Elementary School and one in 2008, which built new Sunset and West Park elementary schools and Armand Larive Middle School. That bond was $69.9 million, and will be paid off in 2029.
Maiocco also said one of the reasons the district wanted to pursue the bond is to qualify for a matching grant, funded by the state of Oregon.
“Oregon is one of the five states without some kind of formal matching process,” he said. If the district gets the bond approved, they can then apply to receive $5.7 million from the matching grant program. Without the bond, they’ll be ineligible for that money.
Several other area school districts, like Umatilla, Echo, Pilot Rock and Milton-Freewater, passed their bonds and received matching grants.
Some in the audience were upset at the prospect of more taxes and asked why the district hadn’t thought of more creative solutions to some of the issues.
“I haven’t seen any out-of-the-box thinking. It’s just spend, spend, tax, tax,” said Geri Weigum, a longtime Hermiston resident. “In my opinion, we’re not utilizing what we have.”
Weigum said she wanted to see Hermiston look into a year-round school or four-day per week school calendar to make better use of district resources.
“We’re being taxed to death,” she said. “I will not vote for it.”
“There have been two community-based committees that looked at all those options,” said Katie Saul, district director of business services, in response to Weigum’s comments. “Those are options we have (considered). But at this point, the bond is the best option.”
Another audience member, who was there representing local construction companies, said he would support the bond.
“Do I like to pay more taxes? No,” he said. “But you do what you have to.”
Several district employees and board members were present at the meeting to answer questions.
District representatives also discussed some of the hazards of continuing to take money out of the general fund.
Hermiston School Board chair Karen Sherman said the main thing the school’s general fund pays for is personnel — and that it can’t address any capital improvement projects.
Currently the district uses about 34 modulars as classrooms, and could see an increase to about 56 in the next few years if the district populations continue to increase at projected rate.
“Every time we drag a modular onto campus, it takes money out of our general fund,” said board member Josh Goller, who is also the chair of the bond’s Political Action Committee. “It’s not a viable long-term solution for the district.”
District officials said the expanded high school would have 14 new classrooms, which would offer space for increased career technical education classes.
Hermiston Mayor David Drotzmann, who is on the Political Action Committee for the bond, said the community has always been supportive of its schools.
“As a community, we need to make decisions about how we want to educate our kids,” he said.
“My kids are no longer in school, but other people helped me support them when they were,” he said. “I’m doing that for the next generation.”
The district has conducted several surveys to gauge community support for the bond. The most recent survey, in October 2016, showed that 46 percent of likely voters supported the bond, 48 opposed it, and six percent were undecided.
Voters will decided whether to approved the bonds in the May 16 election.
Contact Jayati Ramakrishnan at 541-564-4534 or firstname.lastname@example.org