The Canby School District is in good shape to present a possible bond measure to voters in 2020, according to community polling results that were presented to the school board last week. But, the devil is in the details, as they say, and much will depend on the specifics of the bond package that the district presents to the community.
The proposal would not raise taxes, but it would extend the current rate from the previous bond that voters passed to build Baker Prairie Middle School 15 years ago. That bond is due to expire at the end of 2020.
The school district hired Patinkin Research Strategies to gather polling data on the community and asked Portland public affairs consultant Jeremy Wright to help them interpret the data and answer several key questions, one of the main ones being if they should target next year’s primary in May or the general election in November.
What the question is really about are the demographics of likely voters during a primary vs. the general — when turnout will be much higher — and whether either profile would be more or less favorable to a school bond issue.
According to Wright, and the data gathered from over 400 phone surveys of Canby School District voters, it doesn’t really matter. The district enjoys a strong base level of support — and has several possible pitfalls it will need to avoid — regardless of whether they seek a vote in May or November.
Strong Base of Support
Patinkin asked voters to share their level of support for the following: “Shall the Canby School District issue $75 million in general obligation bonds (estimated to maintain current tax rates) to repair and improve schools, update safety and vocational education?”
Of those polled, 56 percent said they would support such a measure, 29 percent were opposed and 15 percent were undecided. Wright also highlighted the intensity of support as a good sign: For those who said they’d vote “yes,” 40 percent were strongly in favor.
“That’s a strong (response) out of the gate, for your district and your demographics,” Wright said.
When Patinkin and his team shared more specifics about items the district is considering including in the bond package, the numbers tended to go up, particularly on security upgrades.
Proposals such as adding cameras, security vestibules, limiting points of entry, seismic improvements, even retrofitting the high school gym so it could be used as a shelter during an emergency (which Wright said has not polled well in other communities), enjoyed net favorability ratings of upwards of 80 percent among likely voters.
“The response here was that you guys have a safety bond,” Wright said. “Your community cares deeply about the safety and security of your students and your staff, and that’s what they want to pay for.”
Educational and vocational upgrades that would expand science labs, upgrade schools’ technology and increase opportunities for hands-on learning were also popular.
Potential Pitfalls to Avoid
Wright said these polling numbers clear the minimum thresholds for a proposal to be considered viable, but it’s by no means a “done deal.”
“You guys are in good shape, but not great shape,” he said. “That opening question, where you’re sitting at 56 percent? It wouldn’t take much to push you below 50 percent.”
He cautioned the school board about the amount they should seek in the bond. They have no plans to increase the tax burden beyond the current rate, but they could raise more capital — up to $97 million — by stretching the bond obligations out over a 20-year period (as opposed to 10 or 15).
Wright doesn’t think it’s a good idea, saying “$97 million was a non-starter,” among voters surveyed.
There were also certain items that did not poll well, including a proposed regional skills center at Ackerman and an outdoor recreational complex behind Ackerman and Philander Lee Elementary. The sports complex, which would be a partnership between the city and school district, has been a topic of discussion for some time at the Canby City Council, but was placed on the back burner due to its high price tag ($13 to $14 million).
What to Do with Ackerman?
Wright, who was asked to dig more deeply into residents’ feelings about the sports complex, shared that it would include facilities for baseball, softball, soccer, football, basketball, tennis and even pickleball courts, and that it would be aimed at attracting regional sports tournaments and boosting economic development. The voters in this poll, evidently were not impressed.
On follow-up, support for the project actually dropped, from the initial net favorability rating of 65 percent, to 53 percent.
“So, once people heard more about this, your support went down,” he said. “And it was already one of your lowest testing items.”
Wright stopped short of saying the district should abandon the idea of the sports complex — or any of the other lower-polling items — but that they should “think carefully” about including them in any package they present to voters.
Interestingly, in a separate question in which respondents were asked what should be done with the Ackerman Center, the two most popular responses were a regional skills center for vocational development, and a combination community and recreational center.
In either case, the sticking point seemed to be the costs associated with each proposal. Basically, respondents liked the idea of a regional vocational center and a sports complex, they just liked it less than the other items that could be included in the bond.
Board to Vote Nov. 7
The school board will vote at its next meeting, Nov. 7, about whether to place a bond measure on the May ballot. If they do decide to move forward, the specifics of the package would be determined through a public process involving staff, parents and other community stakeholders.
Also at stake is a major grant the district has been awarded by the Oregon Office of School Facilities. This matching award would provide an additional $4.8 million toward facility upgrades — but only if the district successfully passes a new bond measure in May.