Vernonia bond campaign reminded voters of school’s importance to community
The December 2007 flood devastated Vernonia and severely damaged the school district’s K-12 school.
Enrollment dropped from 675 students before the flood to 620 the following school year as families left for schools in other communities. The district urgently needed a new building outside the floodplain.
Vernonia, a small community with a low tax base, decided its school was worth rebuilding and passed two bonds for a new school.
“The school is essential,” said Vernonia Superintendent Aaron Miller, who was an elementary school principal in the district for the first bond and oversaw the second attempt as superintendent. “The initial campaign in 2009 was: ‘Save our schools; save the town.’ If we hadn’t been able to rebuild, our community would have been significantly impacted by people moving out of town.”
School construction bonds pass when communities understand an authentic need for capital improvements. In this case, the need was great: to move the district’s only school, and the hub of community activity, out of the flood zone. Expecting $12 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and $14 million from donations and grants, the district won a $13 million bond in 2009 to build the school.
With higher-than-estimated construction costs, the district needed $42 million to build a modern school facility that could also meet emergency shelter needs. The district sought money from any possible funding source.
“We had grants from private foundations, FEMA money, a whole lot of donations from private donors,” Miller said, but donations and grants still fell short of the budget.
The FEMA funding required the district to occupy the building by fall 2012. To meet the deadline and get students into the building, the district cut costs and borrowed $5 million.
“The idea was to have time to continue raising money,” Miller said. “But after we started school in fall 2012, the project became much less attractive for donations.”
Before the students moved into the building, classes were held in portables at risk of flooding. Once the students moved, the project seemed finished and the community no longer felt a sense of urgency, according to Miller.
Although the building was functional and looked finished, work still needed to be done. In addition, the annual loan payments of $408,000 on the $5 million loan were taking money from the classroom.
“For me, the costs were like a noose around my neck,” said Vernonia School Board Chair Brett Costley. “When you are in a small district, $400,000 is a big chunk of change from the general fund. We were going to have to cut positions, have bigger class sizes.”
The district tried a second bond for November 2016 to repay the loan and finish the school. The bond fell short by 56 votes.
For May 2017, the district focused their bond campaign and improved their tactics. They let voters know there was a lot at stake: Educational dollars were being diverted to loan repayments, and a grant from the Oregon School Capital Improvement Matching Program would put free money on the table.
“We made sure people understood why we needed this bond,” said Sharon Bernal, campaign chair and local business owner. “Without that school, without being able to pay off the debt, the whole community would be affected because education would suffer.”
A core volunteer group rolled up their sleeves to pass the measure.
“People were passionate about how important school is,” Bernal said. “They had to be passionate to be willing to work that hard.”
Miller said the 2016 Bonds, Ballots and Buildings Conference helped him understand the process better and where he needed expert help. The district connected with a campaign consultant who donated time and helped them plan how to reach yes voters.
“We looked at voter registration information to see who had voted and compared it to our list of voters who were likely to be positive voters,” Miller said. “Then we contacted them to share information and ensure they would vote.”
The $6.8 million bond passed with 63 percent of the vote.
Miller said they spent more time and energy informing voters about the bond’s positive impacts than the negative effects if it didn’t pass. The new building is energy efficient and provides instructional space for modern educational requirements.
Vernonia’s school is again the center of community life. The building is an emergency shelter for the Red Cross, with a high-powered generator and wiring to keep essential areas online, according to Miller.
Enrollment is climbing.
“People pulled kids for private school or nearby districts, and now they are coming back,” Bernal said.
- Marcia Latta