Debate over campus centers on cost, need

When the Seaside School District commissioned a poll last May on the state of the district and the possible construction of a new school, there was a consensus on the district’s two biggest problems: the need to relocate schools out of the tsunami zone and a lack of funding.

The district hopes to address both of these concerns by building a K-12 school campus above the tsunami inundation line and by asking district homeowners to pick up the tab.

The same May poll, which was conducted by The Nelson Report, a subsidiary of Mark W. Nelson’s lobbying firm Public Affairs Counsel, found that 50 percent of the 343 respondents favored the bond measure; 36 percent opposed it. The remaining 14 percent were not sure how they felt.

The two top reasons for opposing, according to the survey, were “It isn’t needed,” and “Too much money.”

Mary Blake, co-chair of SAFE, the pro-bond political action committee, acknowledged that the new school’s price is the primary concern she’s heard from homeowners.

To pay for the proposed $128.8 million bond levy, it will cost property owners $2.16 per $1,000 assessed valuation. It will mean a 44 percent hike in property taxes already paid to the school district.

“The first one is the sticker shock,” Blake admitted.

But Blake also thinks that, despite the initial shock of the price, the 30-year levy is ultimately worth it.

“When I break my money down, it’s about $1.50 a day for me and my mother,” Blake said. “So what I’m doing is I’m understanding that every single dollar in my life is a vote, every single day, on what I want to see my dollar go for.”

Jay Barber, of Seaside, feels that the new campus is worth the price hike for he and his wife, Jan.

“Yes, it’s going to cost us more, but we believe it is an investment in the future,” he said.

Though the Barbers have no children in the school district, they feel they have an obligation to support young families and children like retirees did for them when they were raising their kids.

“All of our children went through public education and during that time, lots of our neighbors who had raised their children had kind of paid their dues (and) gladly continued to support public education through their property taxes and bond issues,” Jay Barber said. “We feel that it’s our responsibility to continue to support those who are coming behind us, the families who have children in public school, particularly in Seaside where we live.”

The Seaside Chamber of Commerce board unanimously endorsed the ballot measure, citing the poor condition of the schools, the lack of infrastructure to support technology, the proposed emergency shelter at the new campus and the current low interest rate available for the bond.

Chamber Director Susan Huntington, said in a statement that board members “agreed that the timing and opportunity are critical for the community.”

Because of the new campus’s energy-efficient design and the ability to house all the district’s students, staff and resources in one location, supporters see savings in the long run.

When it comes to utilities, “We could save money at the general campus,” said Joey Daniels, chief of the Seaside Fire Department and bond measure supporter. “I look at getting the most bang for our buck, and in the near future we would have to spend a lot of money retrofitting our schools, and I just don’t think it’s cost-effective.”

Rob Sachs, who is the missional pastor at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Seaside, also has no school-age children. He, like the Barbers, believes that a “yes” vote is a sound community investment, despite the 30-year tax hike.

“It’s going to make me tighten my belt a bit,” Sachs said. “But I am willing to support what they’re proposing because I think it’s good for Seaside, it’s good for the kids and for the future of the community.”

Weighing the cost

Other Seaside residents have also been crunching the numbers, and they’re not sure the measure is the wisest use of property owners’ hard-earned dollars.

“That is an outrageous amount of money,” said Amy Gunn, who splits time between Seaside and San Diego, where she is taking care of a sick family member. “Who’s going to feel this are the low-income parents of the community and the senior citizens.”

One of the seniors who would struggle with the cost of a bond levy is Barbara Murray-Brown, 71, who owns a home off U.S. Highway 101 in Gearhart. Murray-Brown’s husband, Bob Brown, died earlier this year, and she saw her Social Security benefits cut in half.

“I’m on a really rigid financial line,” she said. “Everything is really precarious right now – nobody can really predict what’s going to happen.”

Two-thirds of the homeowners who would finance the new campus are second homeowners who can’t vote either way for the measure.

As Murray-Brown figures it, they can afford the little extra: After all, they own a vacation home. But she feels the bond levy would be felt more acutely by those who actually live in the area.

“There are a lot of summer rentals that won’t miss the money,” Murray-Brown said. “But the local people are scrounging.”

Local activist and Seaside mother Angela Fairless feels that the bond measure would be money misspent.

“While I have a lot of respect for many of the individuals in government and this particular campaign, I do believe very firmly that they are wrong about quite a few things in regard to our political and socioeconomic reality,” she said in an email.

Even SAFE supporters acknowledge that the bond measure’s passage could mean rent increases for non-homeowners, as their landlords adjust to the rate hike.

“You could see a rent increase,” said Doug Barker, co-chair of SAFE.

And, if rents rise, it’s not landlords who will feel the pain, according to Gunn.

“If rents increase, then the homeowners don’t feel the brunt, especially homeowners who are out of town,” she said.

Donn Bauske, owner of Seaside Rentals and manager of Seaside Realty, doesn’t see a way around a rent hike.

“Basically, (the cost) is going to be passed on to the tenant when we’re talking about rental properties,” he said. “My expenses go up, my rents go up, commensurate with the expenses within whatever the parameters of the market area.

“I’m going to vote no,” Bauske said. “It’s not something that works economically – there are other ways to cure the problem.”

Viable alternatives?

As discussions about the new proposed campus have intensified, some have wondered if there are viable alternatives to a costly, state-of-the-art campus that would take four years to build.

But the district finds itself in a bind: Though many of the district’s buildings are decaying and inefficient, no major remodels or rebuilds can occur on the current sites that sit within the tsunami inundation zone.

If the district – and its parents and students – want to update the aging buildings, relocating the schools out of harm’s way is the only option, according to Oregon Senate Bill 379, which the Legislature adopted in 1995.

“Harm’s way” was a fairly nebulous term until the 2000s, when the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries released its updated analysis of the Cascadia Subduction Zone, bringing the line of the tsunami inundation zone to 80 feet of elevation.

The proposed campus – which boasts three separate buildings for elementary, middle and high school students – would begin at roughly 80 feet, and its tiered design would rise up the hill toward the adjacent woods; the buildings would stand at roughly 150 feet elevation.

But, to local residents like Murray-Brown, moving the students up on top of the hill isn’t necessarily the answer, and it also raises more questions: If it’s vital to move people above the inundation zone during the school day, how do we deal with the fact that many of these students spend the majority of their time in homes below the inundation line?

“I’m in for keeping kids safe,” said Murray-Brown, whose granddaughter attends school in Gearhart, “but on the other hand, there’s no guarantee that it’ll happen during school.”

Some of those who oppose the bond measure, like Murray-Brown, Fairless and Gunn, take issue with the committee’s heavy usage of the word “safe.”

“Of course no one wants to be the jerk who says, ‘Don’t vote yes for kids,'” Fairless said. “But that is precisely why they are always using our kids as a front for their ego- and fear-driven politics.”

For Murray-Brown, the campaign’s emphasis on escaping the tsunami inundation zone reveals more fundamental issues.

“In reality, none of us should be living here,” said Murray-Brown, who has lived in Gearhart since 1982.

Or, as Donn Bauske put it, “If we’re going to move a school up on the hill, why don’t we just move the whole town up on the hill?”

‘Pipe dream’

Both Murray-Brown and Gunn believe that, before such big steps are taken, perhaps more modest modifications, like increased evacuation routes and an emergency shelter, can be discussed.

“It’s like a pipe dream: It’s a lovely idea to build a state-of-the-art school up on the hill; that sounds so beautiful, but it’s not a very good idea for a lot of the population,” Gunn said. “The alternative probably could be something more like escape routes, emergency planning, emergency preparedness.”

Very few alternatives to the $128.8 million bond measure had been voiced publicly until earlier this week, when “Vote NO on Measure 4-168” fliers began appearing around Seaside.

The fliers were attributed to the “Citizens for responsible and fiscally prudent governance,” which is not a registered political action committee in Oregon. Though the fliers did not include contact information, they did represent the first major public opposition to the bond measure.

The fliers decry the measure’s cost, calling it “excessive, especially in our fledgling coastal economy.” The fliers also note that the hike in property taxes paid toward the school district would jump roughly 44 percent, a claim that is born out by a look at local property tax rates.

The “Vote No” contingent calls for a bond of no more than $45 million to build a new high school and a subsequent “phase-in” of additional bonding and development.

“As public stewards, the school district has a fiduciary responsibility to the tax payers and the community,” the fliers state. Their parting message is, “Let’s be reasonable, let’s be responsible.”

As the vote draws near, undecided voters will have to make sense of a complex situation.

Amy Gunn’s significant other, Kenny Klepp, of Seaside, cut timber for years in the area and believes that something must be done to ensure students’ safety, but at what cost?

“I think it’s a great idea to put a school up there,” Klepp said, “I just don’t think most of the people (in Seaside) can afford the extra taxes. … I really think it needs to be done, but I’m thinking about the price, and so many people are hurting financially.

“What I hear is there’s not much money anywhere,” Klepp said. “We’re in a tough position, we’re in a tough spot.”

The Seaside Signal, 10.25.13. Link: http://goo.gl/NAqxZE

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