Battle Ground schools ask to use leftover money for fixes

District gets input on funds left over from 2005 bond

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Most in the small crowd assembled in Yacolt's primary school on Tuesday seemed to give the thumbs up to their school district's plan of spending money left over from a 2005 bond measure on school repairs.

Only one dissenter at the public hearing — Battle Ground City Councilor Phillip Johnson — audibly insisted on getting his share of the leftover money back. Another vocal opponent of the district's proposal relented in the end, only asking that the district come up with a better plan to keep its buildings in shape in the future.

Battle Ground Public Schools has $5.5 million left over after completing all projects approved by voters in a 2005 bond measure. It now has two options under state law — effectively give the money back to taxpayers or use it for other capital projects, i.e. major repairs needed in its schools.

To give back the money, the district would use the $5.5 million to pay down its debt and not levy district residents' property taxes for that share of it, said MaryBeth Lynn, assistant superintendent for finance and operations, during the hearing. This would equal a one-year reduction of 98 cents per $1,000 in assessed value, or $197 for a $200,000 home, she said.

The second option — using the money for repairs — is only available if the district first gives the public opportunity for comment, which it did on Tuesday and will do again today in a 6 p.m. meeting at Prairie High School. The district by law is only required to hold

one public hearing on this matter and does not have to put the proposal up for a ballot vote by district residents, said Jim McNeill, the district's bond attorney.

The school board is expected to vote on the issue in its meeting at 4:30 p.m. June 4 at the old Lewisville Middle School campus.

The district is desperate to use the leftover money for repairs after a perfect storm of budget mishaps in the past several years. Voters in the school district twice rejected a maintenance and operations levy in 2006, leaving the district budget about $11 million short until a levy passed in 2007. Money from that levy measure didn't arrive until 2008.

That year marked the beginning of the recession, which triggered a chain of state budget cuts. The district has lost about $18 million in state payments since then, Superintendent Shonny Bria said Tuesday.

The district has cut a number of classroom programs in the past six years to make up for the lack of money. But, for obvious reasons, expenses not directly related to what kids learn had to go first. And that has created a maintenance backlog.

Now roofs are leaking, heaters wheezing and blacktop cracking, as Lynn, the head of district finances, showed in a series of slides before the hearing. Down the hall from the room in which the hearing was held, plastic sheeting covered doorways. A couple of rooms at Yacolt Primary were found to contain toxic levels of fungal spores -- mildew -- from water leaking into ceiling materials, according to an April report by Wise Steps, an industrial hygiene firm hired by the district after a school employee complained about the moldy smell.

The Yacolt school is at the top of a list of necessary repairs in Battle Ground schools. The list is available on the district's website and it totals nearly $12 million in estimated costs.

But letting so many buildings fade into such disrepair amounts to irresponsible management, one man attending the hearing said. He would only give his first name -- Robert -- and said he was retired from the Oregon Department of Transportation.

"You're playing on the emotions of the public with these pictures," the man said about the photos of dripping ceilings and buckets catching rainwater.

He asked Lynn why there wasn't a separate account for building maintenance set up all along, to take care of the most basic maintenance needs in schools.

"With these cuts, there hasn't been room for putting money away," Lynn said.

On Wednesday, Lynn told The Columbian she agreed that the district should have been putting money away, ideally.

"But you have to pay your utilities, you have to pay employees," she said. "We've been patching the roof, but it still leaks."

By the end of the meeting, Robert had come to an agreement with Lynn.

"I'm for putting the money into the repair projects, but it is important to the investment of the taxpayers that you maintain the properties," he said.

Lynn said she would take a suggestion to the school board to make it an official policy to set aside some money each year for maintenance. Once enshrined in policy, the maintenance money couldn't be touched in future budget negotiations with employee unions, she said.

Johnson, the Battle Ground councilor, insisted until the end of the meeting that he wanted his money back in the form of lowered property taxes. He questioned the district's decision to purchase land for future growth. The district is in negotiations to buy two parcels for about $350,000.

But the money for that potential purchase comes from impact fees charged to developers, which by law can only be used to offset future growth in the district, not to patch up existing buildings, Lynn told Johnson.

Everyone else who spoke up on Tuesday was in favor of using the leftover money for repairs.

"Let's use this money wisely -- let's fix our schools," said Jim Gizzi, who has a fifth-grader in a Battle Ground school.

"If we don't use this money prudently to protect our children now, it's all going to come back two years from now," said Roger Jarvis, who said he has a 14-year-old in Battle Ground High School next year. "Use the money to fix what we can now. Don't wait for it to get worse."

Jacques Von Lunen: 360-735-4515; jacques.vonlunen@columbian.com;http://www.twitter.com/col_schools.