Astoria schools explore how to pitch a bond

Astoria Middle School is a high priority for renovation.

Modernizing and rebuilding the classroom wing at the 50-year-old Astoria Middle School was the highest priority in a needs assessment for the Astoria School District. But a survey of potential voters in a likely November bond campaign found lackluster support.

The Astoria School Board met Wednesday with state Sen. Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, a public relations consultant and Lake Oswego School Board member. Wagner cautioned the school board to be out in the community educating voters about the value of the school district and how a bond would help.

“A lot of folks, even though they may start in a place where they’re inclined to support you, they need to be reminded about why, and also what” he said.

The school district’s architectural consultants have identified more than $83 million in needed improvements at four schools, including $46.6 million for the middle school and $24.2 million at Astoria High School. A committee has begun winnowing down the needs into projects the district might pursue funding for in a bond.

The middle school faces cracking in the floors and walls because of settling. Many of the classrooms, arrayed around a diamond-shaped hallway in a square building, are triangular, undersized and lack any windows or natural lighting. The building was largely untouched by a 2000 bond measure that paid for the construction of Lewis and Clark Elementary School and improvements at the high school.

The recent phone survey reached about 370 high-frequency voters who generally had high marks for the school district’s performance and the condition of its buildings. But 35 percent of respondents didn’t know about the condition of the middle school, compared to 30 percent who were worried and 35 percent who were not. While they supported improving career-technical offerings at the high school and security across the district, fewer than half found modernizing the middle school a high priority.

The school district is looking at ways to increase public exposure of the middle school, located on the eastern fringes of Astoria and away from major thoroughfares. Wagner showed the school board videos, pamphlets and other quick references used to help educate voters in past campaigns.

The district needs to figure out what’s important about the middle school to voters, said board member Grace Laman, and remind people that the district’s newest school is nearing 20 years old. Board member David Oser said the district should play up the need for natural lighting, used in previous modernization campaigns.

Voters in Clatsop County will decide on four smaller bond measures in the May election. Superintendent Craig Hoppes said the school district is planning a second round of polling after the election to gauge voter appetite for bonds.

Astoria’s bond would join a crowded field in November, including a countywide vote on a $23.8 million jail expansion. Warrenton-Hammond School District is seeking a $32.4 million bond measure to buy a master campus on higher ground and build a middle school as part of a longer-term effort to move students out of the tsunami inundation zone. The Sunset Empire Park and Recreation District in Seaside will likely seek between $15 million and $18 million for expansion.

Wagner has been working with Warrenton on its bond. He recommended the two school districts pool money through a political action committee to employ a full-time local coordinator for the bond campaigns.

About 40 percent of the voters in the county’s last four elections were 55 and older, Hoppes said, and part of having a communications plan is for a strategy to reach voters who might not have a direct connection to schools.

Wagner cautioned against underestimating older voters’ support for school measures. Lake Oswego School District, which has an older demographic, passed a bond measure through early and persistent community engagement that engendered trust in the district’s plan, he said.

“Also, property values,” Wagner said. “People understand the relationship between good schools and what your home is worth.”

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