Among the difficulties facing governmental agencies large and small these days is the issue of retaining the public's trust. Or, more accurately, regaining the public's trust.Cynicism and suspicion tend to be the order of the day when it comes to relations between citizens and those they have elected. As Nietzsche once said: "I'm not upset that you lied to me, I'm upset that from now on I can't believe you" — a sentiment that frequently sums up the attitude of taxpayers in this age of contentious political discourse.
With that in mind, it is easy to appreciate the dilemma that recently faced the Battle Ground school board. On Monday, the board voted 4-1 to take most of the money left over from a 2005 bond measure and use it to fix a long list of health and safety hazards in district schools.
A total of $5.5 million remained after the district completed nearly all the projects approved by voters seven years ago. Under state law, that left two options — return the money to taxpayers or use it for additional capital projects.
According to figures presented at a meeting to discuss the issue, if the district had committed all $5.5 million to paying its debt, property taxes within the district would have decreased by about 98 cents per $1,000 of home value — roughly $197 for a $200,000 home.
According to an article by Columbian reporter Jacques Von Lunen, during a 2004 board meeting, then-board member Frederick Striker promised taxpayers that any unused portion of the bond would be returned to them. In addition, an informational brochure mailed out prior to the 2005 election included a reference to money being returned if the construction projects came in at a lower-than-expected cost.
That created a difficult decision for the current board, and member Monty Anderson is to be commended for voting to honor the promises made in the past. "How do we get the trust back?" he asked about the prospect of board members going back on past promises.
Yet while that concern is reasonable, the board ended up making the proper decision, deciding to put $456,000 toward debt repayments and using the remaining $5 million for much-needed capital repairs. For example, some classrooms at Yacolt Primary School have been found to contain toxic levels of mildew. Elsewhere, leaking roofs and wheezing heaters are in need of attention.
These are the kinds of items that require attention sooner rather than later, the kinds of items for which costs can grow exponentially if they aren't handled in a timely fashion. In the matter of the mildew, the district could be risking the health of students, teachers, and staff — in addition to leaving itself vulnerable to future legal action.
While it is a certainty that there will be gadflies to nitpick every spending decision, when it comes to providing a healthy environment, there really shouldn't be any doubt about the decision. Not to mention the fact that fixing leaky ceilings can greatly improve the learning environment and enhance the quality of education.
Still, such decisions can be difficult for those who are tasked with deciding how to spend our money. The public trust can be a fragile entity, whether officials are at the federal, state, county, or local level.
Battle Ground school officials went back on a promise that had been made years ago, yet it was a reasonable decision. Because while we trust public officials to adhere to their promises, we trust them even more to do what's right.