The Oregon School District will have a referendum Nov. 6 to seek approval to borrow funds for a new grade school in Fitchburg.
The Oregon School Board made official what it’s been leaning toward for months at a special meeting Wednesday night, approving a pair of questions for the general election ballot.
Now it’s up to officials to help district residents understand the plan; the first in a proposed two-step building project to prevent a surge of overcrowding in schools expected to begin as soon as 2020.
The board unanimously approved two referendums: one to borrow not more than $44.9 million and the other allowing the district to exceed its state-imposed revenue limit by $2.1 million on a yearly basis once the new school has opened.
However, the $44.9 million – which includes the land purchase that is yet to be finalized – is a “worst-case scenario in terms of the cost,” said board president Steve Zach, and district superintendent Brian Busler agreed that the number could be less.
“This is the top-end cost,” Busler said. “We have the maximum borrowing amount at $44.9 million, which matched the maximum budget we have put together so far.”
The exact tax impact on district residents and structuring of bonds for the referendums will be determined in the coming weeks, district business manager Andy Weiland said in an email to the Observer on Thursday.
He said the district’s financial adviser estimates the highest net impact of the first referendum would be in the range of $0.59 to $0.89 per $1,000 of assessed value on homes in 2018, depending on how the bonds are structured. The second question on the levy limit override is estimated to have a net impact of $0.69 per $1,000, Weiland said – an extra $138 per year on a $200,000 home – though that wouldn’t hit until 2020.
Zach said the board will meet before its next regular meeting Aug. 27 to finalize the taxpayer impact for both.
Construction is set for two phases – the first addressing the fast-growing area on the district’s north side with a K-6 elementary school in Fitchburg in time for the 2020-21 school year. The second would be a separate, future referendum, for a potential middle school in the Village of Oregon, likely around 2022, Busler said.
The Fitchburg school would remain the K-6 format until that new middle school was built. Then, it would change to a K-5, along with the district’s three existing elementary schools (Brooklyn, Netherwood Knoll and Prairie View) and its grades 5-6 intermediate school, Rome Corners.
The new Fitchburg school would be designed for 600 students, with a likely first-year enrollment around 420, Busler said, which would “alleviate overcrowding at all three elementary schools and RCI.” Some students would move from the three elementary schools (Brooklyn resident students will remain at BKE), with plans to relocate 11 teachers to the new building and hire 10 additional teachers to complete the staffing there.
The proposed new construction and shuffling is the result of considerable planning by district officials over the past several years on how to handle a projected increase of 2,000 students by 2030. The district now has just over 4,000 students.
Krista Flanagan, co-chair of the district’s growth task force, said the group “listened to the community in terms of what they value in education and we’ve heard … (new) buildings are needed.”
“We have values about how we educate students in this school district, and part of this is the environment in which our kids are educated,” she said. “We know with the growth of students, that environment is going to change if we stay in our current buildings.”
With the finalizing of the tax impact of the referendums, district officials will then move to the next phase of informing the public about the need for the new school and the referendum funding.
Zach said board members are well aware this will be the third time the district has gone to referendum since 2014, but that “our response is to be measured first and foremost by what is best for our students.”
Board member Tim LeBrun said if the board “miss(es) this opportunity, it’s going to look a lot worse the next time we come back to ask.”
“I know it seems we’re just finishing spending a fair amount of money on some well-spent projects, (and) I don’t ask for money lightly, but I know how important (a new school) is going to be two years from now for all those kids to go to,” LeBrun said.
Zach said the “cost of saying no” is unacceptable from an education standpoint.
“(It means) increased class sizes in our existing buildings, it means teachers on carts, potentially, it means consideration of trailers, and in a district that has repeatedly expressed to us the value of public education and maintaining the standards we have,” he said.
From an economic standpoint, Zach said being “proactive” is the most cost-effective approach. “Chasing solutions once we have the problem or we need to fix it not only impacts education and the value to our students, but it comes at increased cost by delayed construction costs, increased financing and fixing problems after the fact,” he said. “I don’t have any reservations at all about going to the public with this referendum and to hard sell it, because it’s the right thing, and in my mind the only thing to do.”