Astoria schools send $70m bond to voters

A $70 million bond going before voters in November could help renovate Astoria Middle School.

The Astoria School District will ask voters in November for up to $70 million in bonds over 26 years to finance improvements to its five campuses.

The school board on Monday unanimously approved going out for a bond. District voters last approved $21.4 million worth of bonds in 2000 to build Lewis and Clark Elementary School, along with other improvements. The new bonds would begin after the old bonds expire in 2020, raising taxes for district voters by an estimated $1 — a rate of $2.83 per $1,000 of assessed property value.

“I’m confident this isn’t something we’re jumping into with half of a plan,” said Jenna Rickenbach, a school board member.

The bond is important to improve students’ safety, add career-technical educational opportunities and keep the district’s buildings in good condition, she added.

The school district received several state planning grants and spent the past year assessing the needs of its five campuses. Consultants came back with a long-range facilities plan identifying more than $80 million in needs. A facilities committee, including 30 community and district staff members, prioritized projects and whittled the recommended ask down to $70 million.

The bond would help finance a five-year, $75 million school improvement plan focused on school security, modernizing learning areas and improving building systems. If the bond passes, the district will receive a $4 million matching grant from the state. The remainder of the improvements would be funded by an estimated $1 million from interest earnings from the bonds.

The centerpiece of the school district’s improvement plan is a nearly $45 million modernization of Astoria Middle School, including the reconstruction of a dated classroom wing into a three-story academic hall with identical learning communities on each floor. Support areas of the school would also be modernized, and the track resurfaced.

Astoria High School would receive nearly $20 million in security and modernization improvements. Outdoor corridors around the campus would be enclosed to improve security. Shop, art and science classrooms would be modernized; new music areas would be added; and the track would be resurfaced.

John Jacob Astor Elementary School would receive $9 million worth of improvements. An old cafeteria downhill from the main building would be remodeled into a multipurpose cafeteria, kitchen and activity room with improved access uphill. Kindergarten classrooms would be added, along with more covered play areas.

Lewis and Clark Elementary School and Capt. Robert Gray School — home of administrative offices, preschool and the district’s high school credit recovery program — would receive more minor building improvements.

Jennifer Holen, co-owner of Baked Alaska and a member of the facilities committee, said Monday that the amount of safety and accessibility needs warrant a bond.

“It would be irresponsible for us not to ask for it at this point,” she said.

Loran Mathews, a former school district employee of more than 30 years and a facilities committee member, said he started with the district when it passed a bond in the 1960s to build the middle school. The district could have justifiably asked for more money to fix its aging schools but was respectful of what the community can afford, he said.

The only way the school district can afford to significantly improve its facilities is through a bond, said David Oser, a board member. While healthy, safe buildings don’t make a good school district, he said, the lack thereof can make it an uphill battle.

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