The power to build new schools will officially be in Hermiston voters’ hands during the May 2017 election.
On Monday, the Hermiston School District board unanimously adopted a resolution placing a $104 million capital construction bond on the ballot.
The bond money would go toward a new elementary school off Theater Lane, replacement of Rocky Heights Elementary, replacement of Highland Hills Elementary, renovations at Sandstone Middle School and an expansion of Hermiston High School that would bring its capacity from 1,600 students to 2,000.
It would add 90 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to local property taxes, which are currently $4.09 per $1,000 for education.
Board members acknowledged the financial impact on Hermiston residents, but also spoke of students spending their days in portable classrooms and in schools with floor plans where children have to cross an unsecured outdoor campus to get from room to room.
“The bottom line is always the kids,” board chair Karen Sherman said. “Rocky Heights and Highland Hills are not safe schools. We owe it to our students to have safe schools.”
Right now the district is using 34 modular classrooms to handle overflow and superintendent Fred Maiocco said that number could be as high as 50 in two years. The district was using 20 portable classrooms when voters approved a $69.9 million bond in 2008 to replace and expand multiple schools. Since then the district has grown by an additional 600 students, beating Portland State University’s most aggressive projections for yearly growth.
The district’s last survey indicated that 46 percent of likely voters supported the bond and 48 percent did not, leaving about 6 percent undecided.
Maiocco said waiting until May 2019 could give the district more opportunities to educate those undecided voters, but could also make the district lose the momentum it has built after a three year process putting together an in-depth facilities master plan.
From a financial standpoint, waiting two more years would mean more of the district’s previous bonds would be paid off. On the other hand, Maiocco said, construction costs are rising at about 1 percent a month with no end in sight, so delaying construction by two years would raise the cost of building the schools.
Another consideration is the Oregon School Capital Improvement Matching Program, which has provided $4 million matching grants to several other Eastern Oregon schools that recently passed bonds. The May election would be the last time the money would be available, although Maiocco said even that is not a sure thing anymore after Gov. Kate Brown’s recent budget proposal recommended that program be ended early. If legislators listen to schools and keep it for one last election cycle, however, Hermiston would be eligible for $5.76 million under the current matrix.
If Hermiston does not get those matching funds, Maiocco said the district would still be able to build the schools but would not have the $5 million it has built into the bond to purchase new property that would be kept in reserve for the next time the district needs to build a new school.
Board member Dave Smith said that there is “no doubt” the district has done its homework, and that the need is there. Waiting two years to go for the bond, he said, would only make it more expensive.
Board member Josh Goller agreed, and added that it would also mean two more years of less-than-ideal classrooms for students.
“Our students get one shot at those grade levels,” he said.
Sherman also pointed to the maintenance problems of the older schools, and the recent analysis showing $846,075 in cost savings over five years thanks to the energy efficiency of the district’s new schools.
On Monday the board discussed one example of a maintenance problem in the part of the high school built in 1992, which would be replaced during the proposed expansion. Freezing temperatures caused a water line in the school’s fire suppression system to burst on Thursday, flooding the math and science classrooms, hallways, kitchen and commons area.
The school was evacuated for 14 minutes due to safety concerns about the mixture of water and electrical fixtures, then the gym was cleared for use by students waiting for a bus to take them home.
Maiocco had high praise for the response of the district’s custodial staff, which rushed to answer the “all hands on deck” call, and O So Kleen, which responded within 20 minutes to begin cleanup. All classrooms were back in use by Monday morning.
“Within two and a half hours all the water was picked up ... It was just absolutely amazing how fast that whole team came together and got things done,” Maiocco said.
He said insurance adjusters had examined the damage, and there was still extensive cosmetic work that would need to be done over the winter break.
The board approved the emergency funding request, with an abstention from Smith, who owns O So Kleen.
Contact Jade McDowell at 541-564-4536.