How much is enough for a school bond?


How much is enough for a school bond?

Published 3:53 p.m. PT March 24, 2017 | Updated 10:51 a.m. PT March 27, 2017

In 1998, the Salem-Keizer School District needed $362 million to address building needs in the district. However, when the district assessed how much the community was willing and able to pay, the final bond came in at $177 million.

Ten years later, another committee recommended $544 million in new construction and remodeling. Voters approved $242 million.

Now, the district is perusing a list of projects that could total $766 million that would address overcrowding and other facility and safety needs.

On March 21, the Salem-Keizer School Board accepted recommendations from its Citizen’s Facilities Task Force. It plans to have a bond measure in front of voters this coming November.

District officials will now take various steps to gauge public opinion and see what the community is willing to pay.

The Lake Oswego School District is asking its voters for $187 million, and Portland Public Schools are asking for $790 million. Both of those measures are on the May ballot in Multnomah County.

Armed with this knowledge, board members will be tasked with the difficult decision of what projects to pursue now, and which to save for another time.

To begin the process, the district hires a firm to conduct a bond feasibility survey. This will help board members understand what taxpayers currently think is important to prioritize and how much they may be willing to pay.

The survey results do not dictate action by the board and the survey doesn’t make promises to taxpayers, said Jay Remy, a spokesman for the district.

Then, Jeanne Magmer, a bond measure expert outside the district, will analyze the survey results, all of which will be presented to the board in late April or early May, assuming there are no unforeseen obstacles.

After that, the district will hold community meetings and conduct other outreach efforts. This is separate from a campaign that advocates for a specific result of the election, which is done by a political action committee.

In the past bond measures, this is when the hard choices are made and the ‘needs’ list is pared to a list that’s acceptable to voters.

In getting the $177 million bond approved in 1998, school officials worked to slice the original proposal down from $362 million. The Salem Area Chamber of Commerce was a key player in that effort, convincing school board members to focus on immediate and short-term needs.

Voters approved the bond, and the district built West Salem High School, a new middle school, nine new elementary schools and made fixes at every existing school in the district.

In 2008, a similar path was followed.  A community-wide committee created a ‘needs’ list of $544 million. Polling showed lukewarm support and the eventual bond measure was $242 million; even at that reduced amount, polls showed only 43 percent support.

Still, voters approved and the district built Battle Creek, Kalapuya, and Chavez elementary schools and Straub Middle School and made repairs and upgrades throughout the district.

In the current plan, the needs list calls for removing a bunch of old portable classrooms, adding classroom space at many schools, adding science labs at more than three dozen schools, boosting capacity at all six traditional high schools, seismic upgrades and more. The total: $766 million.

The final step will be for voters to approve or reject the bond on the November ballot.

“Each community is unique,” Magmer said. “There are some patterns … but the successful (bond measures) are those that keep the bond rate the same. Voters these days are price sensitive.”

Salem-Keizer officials say it’s too soon to know what the bond rate will be, given they haven’t even decided on what amount to seek. Taxpayers have been paying about $2 per $1,000 of assessed property value — $500 per year for a $250,000 home — but that rate declined to $1.35 per $1,000 this year because older bonds were repaid.

If the district needs to raise the tax rate, that isn’t necessarily a death sentence.

Magmer referenced the Greater Albany School District, which recently passed a bond measure that raised taxes, she said, because voters were willing to pay more to improve school conditions.

“Each community needs to do their research and listen to what (responders) are saying,” she said. “It sounds like Salem-Keizer is starting those steps.”

Contact Natalie Pate at, 503-399-6745, or follow her on Twitter @Nataliempate or on Facebook at

Bonds of the past for SKSD

$96 million in 1992

  • $58.6 million for six new schools; $37.4 million for other repairs, additions, etc.

$177.8 million in 1998

  • $111.3 million for 10 new schools; $66.5 million for other repairs, additions, etc.
  • Original needs list was $362 million

$242.1 million in 2008

  • $122.4 million for four new schools; $119.7 million for other repairs, additions, etc.
  • Not included: Career and Technical High School, seven elementary schools
  • Original needs list was $544 million

Published by Natalie Pate

Natalie Pate is a freelance journalist and author based in Salem, Oregon. She wrote about education for more than seven years at the Statesman Journal and now covers education and other topics throughout the Pacific Northwest. She is originally from Colorado and earned her B.A. in Politics and French from Willamette University.

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