On Feb. 26, the Canby School Board voted unanimously to place a 20-year, $75 million bond issue on the ballot for the May 19 primary election. Two days later, Oregon’s first case of the novel coronavirus was confirmed in an employee at a Lake Oswego elementary school, and the state has never been the same.
Much has changed since that fateful day, particularly for Oregon schools. Districts have spent most of the past month dealing with the immediate impacts of statewide school closures, followed by preparations for a shift to resuming classes through distance learning — which just started this week.
And, much has changed for thousands of Canby School District residents financially. Unemployment is at record levels, businesses are failing and the state and national economy is cratering around the coronavirus pandemic.
An economic picture that looked quite rosy in January and February has shifted dramatically.
But there’s still the small issue of the May ballot, and the sizable Canby School District bond issue that will almost certainly be on it. The deadline to withdraw was March 19, and while several school districts, including Estacada and Sutherlin, chose to take back their proposals for upgrading schools, Canby did not.
Canby School Board Chair Angi Dilkes broached the subject during a virtual meeting Thursday to discuss the limited options that may be available.
She began by summing up what has been the general feelings of the board’s members since early March: “What do we do now? Because we voted to place this measure on the ballot, (then) the entire world turned upside-down.”
Dilkes said that shortly before the meeting began, she had learned that the Oregon Department of Education may still allow districts to withdraw measures even though the deadline has long since passed.
But she did not have enough information Thursday night to say exactly what that would mean.
With voters’ pamphlets already printed and ballots scheduled to go out in 10 days, it may already be too late to pull the language from the ballot. In that case, all a withdrawal would do is nullify the results.
But it may also allow the district to show some measure of sensitivity to the suddenly desperate economic circumstances many families are now facing. As board member Tom Scott noted, the optics are important here.
“The needs aren’t going away,” he said, meaning the need to upgrade Canby school facilities that the bond was originally meant to address. “But we also have to understand this is a very sensitive time, and I think the optics to our community might not be very good with this coming out on a ballot.”
No one appeared to be in favor of raising or spending money on a robust public engagement campaign, but Scott and others expressed their support for a more low-key approach, one that would share information about the bond proposal and the need for it, while also making clear that it had been approved to go forward well before the COVID pandemic hit Oregon.
Sara Magenheimer, another member of the district Board of Directors who also served on the committee that developed the bond package, said she, too, was in favor of sharing information with voters.
“You know, this is a totally different time and place than it was when we put that bond on the ballot,” she acknowledged, “but I do feel that we should still provide some level of education and information … so that people in our community can make a decision that’s right for them and their families. And that might be ‘no.’ And we might just have to be O.K. with that.”
If the district does punt on the primary, there’s no guarantee that circumstances will have improved before the next election in November. In fact, they could be worse.
And, after this year, the district would face the prospect of no longer being able to message this proposal as a “replacement” bond that would keep tax rates the same. By 2021, the bond used to build Baker Prairie Middle School will have expired, and any new proposal would come across as a true tax increase — a much harder sell, even in a good economy.
Dilkes said she will try to get more information about withdrawing and what that might look like. But she ultimately acknowledged the best course might be to simply move forward, and let the chips fall where they may.
“I certainly am incredibly sensitive to what’s going on in our community, here in Canby and everywhere,” she said. “But I also know that we are going to be back in those buildings at some point. There’s a technology aspect to what we’re asking voters to consider, and our kids still need those improvements.”