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April 21, 2013
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Roseburg School District seeks bond

When the Roseburg School District faced a budget shortfall from declining enrollment, district officials agreed to some sacrifices.

In the past five years, the district has cut $10 million from its budget, while striving to preserve essentials, according to Superintendent Larry Parsons. Teaching jobs, school programs and student classroom days were among those priorities. As a result, it’s been years since the district has invested in major maintenance projects and updated curriculum and technology, he said.

“We had to take money from somewhere and it was those three things,” Parsons said. “The cost of that was these three things were put on the back burner.”

Putting off these expenses was meant to be a short-term solution, he said, and it’s one the district can no longer afford. That’s why the district has put a $6 million bond levy on the May 21 ballot to help pay for new computers, textbooks and building maintenance.

“We’re going to use the money to begin to recover in those areas,” Parsons said.

The bond would cost taxpayers an estimated 37 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or $55.50 a year on a $150,000 house.

The Roseburg School Board decided this month to close Rose Elementary School this fall if the levy fails. Board members have long wrestled with the decision to close one of the district’s nine elementary schools to free up funding for curriculum, maintenance and technology. The district anticipates saving about $425,000 a year by closing an elementary school.

District school buildings might appear fine, but boilers, ventilation, septic systems, roofs and floors throughout the district desperately need to be replaced or refurbished, he said. The district is lucky something catastrophic hasn’t happened yet, Parsons said.

It’s been five years since the district has done any major repairs, said Cheryl Northam, the district’s chief operations officer.

“Ideally, maintenance is done before you have a problem,” she said. “Ideally, you replace a roof before it’s useful life is done, before it has a leak.”

Meanwhile, computers in school labs and classrooms are getting so old that they can’t support state standardized tests, Parsons said.

As the district’s computers continue to deteriorate, so have its textbooks. Parsons said schoolbooks have become so outdated, the district is falling behind on meeting state and federal educational standards.

The district has long floated the idea of running a tax levy. The school board last year rejected the option of closing either Rose or Green elementary school and instead unanimously decided to seek a levy. The board later dropped the levy proposal, worried that in a poor economy voters would turn down the measure. But in January, still faced with a budget crisis, the board voted to close a school.

The idea of running a levy reemerged in February when the board agreed to put off deciding which school to close. Board members wanted to give the public time to form a citizens committee and draft a levy proposal.

A group called FIRMGROUND for Kids emerged and said it would campaign for a $6 million bond levy. FIRMGROUND stands for Fir Grove, Rose, Melrose, Green; Opportunities Utilizing New Directions. The name refers to four elementary schools on the board’s short list for closure. Group members have urged board members to keep all nine elementary schools open if the levy passes.

Since forming in February, members of the political action committee have been busy campaigning for the bond, FIRMGROUND chairwoman Laurie Way said. They’ve put up signs, visited schools and plan to make phone calls and knock on doors to spread the word about the measure, she said.

In campaigning for the bond, the group has emphasized the district can’t wait any longer to fund major maintenance, curriculum and technology, Way said.

“If we don’t get this passed now, the hole we drop into is so deep it will take years to climb out of,” she said. “We’re just at a very critical tipping point.”

Though FIRMGROUND was born out of the school closure debate, Way said shuttering a school is “a symptom of a larger problem, that hole in the budget,” she said.

FIRMGROUND board member Scott Allen said the levy isn’t about keeping one school from closing. It aims to help the entire district, he said.

“I think most people don’t know what the levy is for,” Allen said. “It benefits every school in the district, K-12. It benefits every student, every teacher.”

Way added that bond passage will be good for Roseburg’s economy.

“Schools are the cornerstones of a community,” Way said. “When schools are good and thriving, people are more likely to move here for jobs and stay.”

The district would also hire Douglas County contractors for maintenance projects funded by the bond, she said. “The money will be infused right into the community.”

School board chairman Steve Patterson said the board was encouraged to run the levy after seeing FIRMGROUND’s commitment to campaign for it. When the district sought to run a levy last summer, board members became discouraged by poor attendance at community meetings aimed at forming a campaign committee, he said.

“We finally saw support in the community that was lacking,” he said. “The citizens’ group has done a fantastic job of organizing quickly.”

Patterson said the bond should put the district in much better financial standing, making it possible to keep all of its schools open.

“I’m really hopeful that the levy passes and we’ll be able to remove school closure from the agenda for another year,” he said.

Board member Joe Garcia, who urged the board in February to reconsider a levy, said the measure is a better way to help solve the district’s budget woes.

“Closing a school is a permanent solution to what very well could be a temporary problem,” he said. “To get the district stable and where it needs to be, we need some infusion of funds or we need to cut somewhere ... even if you close a building, it doesn’t give you enough stability.”

If the bond passes, the district should receive the bond funds by late summer or early fall, Northam said. The bond would be spent over five years starting with the 2013-14 school year, Parsons said. He said he anticipates the district spending about $500,000 a year on maintenance projects, $400,000 on adopting new curriculum and $300,000 on new computers and other technology.

Among the maintenance projects the district hopes to finance with bond funds are replacing the boiler at Green Elementary School, refurbishing the boiler at Hucrest Elementary School and replacing roofing at Eastwood, Green, Fullerton IV, Melrose and Winchester elementary schools.

The district would also replace desktop computers used by students, staff laptop computers, servers and network equipment. In addition, bond funds would help with the purchase of reading, math, science and language arts curriculum over the next five years.

Taxpayers are still paying off a 20-year district bond that passed in 2000. The $23 million bond paid for additions to Roseburg High School and improvements to other school buildings. The bond expires in 2021. The rate is 62 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation, according to the Douglas County Assessor’s Office.

Garcia said it’s time for another bond, given the extent to which the district has been forced to put off maintaining its buildings and updates to technology and curriculum.

“You have to have a plan to cover everything. You can’t just leave a portion of your responsibilities to the side,” he said. “We have to find a way to fund these areas, especially if we want to remain competitive as a district.”

• You can reach reporter Inka Bajandas at 541-957-4202 or email at ibajandas@nrtoday.com.

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The News-Review Updated Apr 24, 2013 12:55PM Published May 14, 2013 02:38PM Copyright 2013 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.