School bond could influence growth

Businesses notice how well a city funds its infrastructure

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

Ridgefield schools bond vote

• When: Feb. 14, 2012

• Cost: $47 million over 20 years; for households, $1.73 per $1,000 assessed valuation of home.

• Pays for: Infrastructure, safety improvements for Ridgefield’s four schools.

Eight years ago, when Corwin Beverage searched for a location to build a modern facility with increased storage space for its soft drink distribution business, Ridgefield’s combination of land availability and its location off Interstate 5 sold company officials.

Since relocating its facilities from Vancouver and Kelso to Ridgefield in 2003, the company has relied on the area to supply it with entry-level workers, many of whom are fresh out of high school. While not a chief determining factor in Corwin Beverage’s relocation, school district quality remains important to the “blue collar” business — not only does it hire local workers, but it often promotes within, said Heidi Schultz, vice president of human resources.

“The schools aren’t going to be a deal-breaker for a distribution warehouse,” she said, “but it’s an attractive benefit.”

That’s probably good news for Ridgefield, population 4,763.

The city is on the verge of tremendous business and population growth over the next 20 years, thanks to land availability along I-5, officials say. However, the promise of ample space and opportunity along the corridor runs contrary to the realities found in the city’s school district, where facilities are overcrowded, outdated and in desperate need of a facelift, according to school officials.

In February, Ridgefield’s school district will attempt to pass a $47 million bond to upgrade its four schools over the next 20 years. If the bond passes, residents would pay $1.73 per $1,000 of assessed valuation on their home.

A bond failure would not ultimately slow business growth in Ridgefield any more than the recession already has, but it could cause some companies second thoughts about moving there, Clark County business leaders say. It could also put Ridgefield, which has passed only two school bonds in the past 20 years, at a competitive disadvantage.

Cities across Clark County are attempting to sell businesses on their merits amid the current recession. While land availability and price, quality of workforce and taxes often carry the most weight for businesses looking to relocate, the quality of K-12 and post-secondary education also receives consideration, local business leaders said.

“I don’t think you can separate the school district driving business development and business development driving school districts,” said Paul Dennis, head of the Camas-Washougal Economic Development Association. “They’re interrelated.”

A community’s willingness to support itself can make a lasting impression on the businesses it is attempting to court, business leaders said. This includes spending money on roads, schools and parks that increase a community’s quality of life.

A company whose workforce is its greatest asset would consider quality of life issues more than a business whose higher production rate resulted in a lower profit margin.

“If a community is not willing to invest in itself they’ll have a harder time attracting business,” Dennis said. It does not necessarily make it impossible, he noted.

Businesses realize a community’s ability to pass bonds is often cyclical based on the economy, but a city that consistently fails to pass bonds may scare businesses, said Lisa Nisenfeld, executive director of the Columbia River Economic Development Council.

“The education system, particularly the K-12 system, is part of our infrastructure as much as freeways and water on the tap,” Nisenfeld said. “We tend to take them for granted but they are important for having a foundation (for a) healthy business climate.”

‘Some concern’

Whether it is more important to have strong schools in place to support business or a strong business presence first to provide tax dollars to enhance schools is something of a chicken-or-egg proposition. Which entity comes first in the equation can be tough to decipher.

“It’s certainly a symbiotic relationship,” Ridgefield City Administrator Justin Clary said. “Thankfully, the Ridgefield School District has been able to benefit from businesses at the I-5 junction.”

The importance of having up-to-date school facilities is not lost on Clary. Portable buildings are prevalent in Ridgefield. They are not adequate to meet students’ safety or learning needs, school officials said.

Ridgefield Superintendent Art Edgerly did not return phone calls this week for this story.

Clary bristles at the appearance that the city does not support its own infrastructure.

“There is certainly some concern,” Clary said, regarding the bond proposal. “The quality of education does play a key role in businesses’ decisionmaking. It’s been shown time and again.”

Corwin Beverage’s Schultz agreed.

“Schools are a huge part of any community, especially a small town like Ridgefield,” she said, noting the city’s schools have a good reputation.

Leaders of the 700-member Building Industry Association of Clark County articulated a position similar to Clary’s and Nisenfeld’s this week when they announced their support of the Ridgefield school bond proposal.

“Good schools not only attract new home buyers but also new companies are more likely to locate in an area that places a high value on public education,” said BIACC President Mike Kinnaman in a prepared statement released by the Building Industry Group, the BIACC’s political action committee.

Where to live

When or if more businesses relocate to Ridgefield, as city officials have predicted, that will mean more workers facing their own choices — live in the city where they work, or commute.

Test scores, graduation rates and facilities within a school district can have a major impact on whether employees choose homes near where they work, local business leaders said. In this way, the school district’s quality can affect property values.

“Quality schools in La Center, Camas and Evergreen help all the businesses across the county,” La Center Superintendent Mark Mansell said, noting that many of his school district’s residents work elsewhere.

Work commutes within Clark County do not require residents to drive long distances. Thus, residents will often choose to live in an area with a better school system, added Mike Merlino, chief financial officer for the Evergreen School District.

Merlino’s statement applies to Ridgefield, whose comprehensive plan includes industrial development along I-5.

“Those people will live near where they work if the school system is great,” said Tevis Laspa, a former Ridgefield mayor, member of Citizens for Ridgefield Schools and owner of Pro-Tech Industries in Salmon Creek and Nashville, Tenn.

School facilities can also have an impact on a district’s ability to recruit and retain solid teachers, said Gay Selby, coordinator of Washington State University Vancouver’s Educational Leadership Program.

“There is kind of this cascading effect, where districts that have old facilities don’t allow teachers and students to do things that they can in more modern facilities,” Selby said.

Many businesses are also interested in educational enhancement opportunities for their workforces, Selby noted. Such companies will not only gauge K-12 education, but higher-learning institutions like Washington State University Vancouver.

‘A different education’

Employers are looking for high school graduates who are proficient in math and English and can communicate well with their co-workers, Laspa said. It is important, then, for students to be placed in learning environments that help them develop such skills.

“You can tell some people are getting a different education than others, in terms of being prepared for the job market,” Schultz said. She has observed this on applications and résumés, and in interviews.

The relationship between education and business could one day change how Clark County residents plot their post-high-school lives.

County residents have traditionally left the area to start their careers before returning later in life, Dennis said. That trend is slowly beginning to change, he said. Schools across the county are adding math and science programs to better prepare students for college, and thus, by extension, entry-level jobs coming to the area.

The Evergreen School District’s Henrietta Lacks Health and Bioscience High School will open in fall 2013. It will provide fresh opportunities for schools to partner with the health care industry, Merlino said.

It is a promising start, but there is still more work remaining.

“I still think we’re a ways away,” Dennis said of Clark County’s collective education and job offerings reducing the need for residents to go elsewhere.

Ridgefield is a ways away, too. February’s bond vote will show just how far.

Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517; www.facebook.com/raylegend;www.twitter.com/col_smallcities;ray.legendre@columbian.com.