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Ashland voters get $109 million question

An Ashland school bond measure on the November ballot is aimed at replacing a 70-year-old elementary school, improving energy-efficiency and shoring up safety.

“One thing we like to joke about on the School Board is buildings don’t heal themselves over time,” said Jim Westrick, an Ashland School Board member. “They just get worse.”

The board’s unanimous vote June 11 to put a $109 million bond measure on the November ballot was several years in the making. School district officials view the measure as a step in a schedule laid out in 1996, which forecast four separate phases of capital projects until 2042.

If passed, payments on the new bond would begin after the current bond, passed in 2006, expires in 2019. If the bond does not pass, homeowners’ bond payments, which operate under a tax rate of $2 or less per $1,000 of assessed value, would stop.

The new bond was designed to also tax property owners $2 maximum per $1,000 of assessed value. District officials said the 25-year bond levy would stay at or under that rate for 13 years. In 2032, the district said, the levy would reduce to $1 per $1,000 of assessed value for the remaining 12 years.

That would mean an initial cost of $600 annually on a house with an assessed value of $300,000, reduced to $300 annually after 13 years.

The bond Ashland voters passed in 2006 was $46.8 million and was used to rebuild Bellview Elementary School, improve fire alarms, exit systems and technology infrastructure across the district, among other upgrades.

Districtwide improvements planned in the new bond include upgrades to old heating and cooling systems and improving the efficiency of electrical and plumbing systems.

The district has plans for specific schools, as well. It plans to raze and rebuild the older south building of Ashland Middle School, which leaks on rainy days and sometimes requires noisy air scrubbers to clean out the air on smoky days.

Walker Elementary, which was built in 1948, would also be completely renovated, but its original structure kept.

The district also prioritized increasing safety measures. In addition to seismic upgrades, it plans to create designated single points of entry at schools where that is possible.

A facilities committee, composed of 23 members from the district and the Ashland community, surveyed every school campus to determine individual needs, including those renovated in the 2006 bond.

Jim Teece, president and CEO of Project A and Ashland Home Net, served on the facilities committee for the proposed bond and the two prior. He said he felt the committee reflected a diverse variety of perspectives: parents of students and alumni, retirees, district officials and others.

“I felt very good about the due diligence that the committee did,” Teece said.

Community feedback was also collected through three open forums held in March. Attendees discussed their desire to create more environmentally sustainable buildings, which the district lists as one of its guiding priorities in the project.

“We can address these changes, or we can pay a whole lot more later on,” Westrick said.

Besides the schedule laid out in the previous bonds, the Ashland School Board has justified the timing of the bond by pointing to increasing construction costs and its AAA bond rating, the highest possible, which will allow it to gain lower interest rates on its bond purchases.

“I am 100 percent confident this is the most fiscally responsible way to do this,” Westrick said.

“Ashland voters tend to be very savvy, very thoughtful about what they do,” he said, adding that historically the community has shown strong support for funding public education through bonds.

“I feel very comfortable with what we’re asking voters about, but I’ll never take them for granted.” Westrick said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune{ } Jordan Ely, director of finance and operations for the Ashland School District, shows where air scrubbers are being used for smoky days at Ashland Middle School.