Chris Collins
The Baker City Herald

Baker School Board directors last week learned more about the voters who in November soundly defeated a $48 million bond issue that would have paid for a new elementary school and other school improvements.

Analysis by a contractor shows that the key demographic is voters age 45 and older.

The measure went down by a vote of 4,760 to 2,221 in the Nov. 6, 2018, election.

Board members have discussed the possibility of asking voters to approve a much smaller — $6 million — measure, possibly in November 2019 or in May 2020, that doesn’t include any new construction.

Connie Potter, a communications consultant who contracts with the Oregon School Boards Association, met with the 5J Board by phone during an April 4 work session to look further into which voters the district needs to persuade to support a future bond measure.

The Board plans to meet in early May to continue its discussion.

The information was compiled by L2, a Bothell, Washington, firm.

Of the 10,507 registered voters in the District, 6,981 — 66% — voted on the bond measure.

The largest contingent of voters, and the group that returned ballots at the highest rate, is those age 45 or older. That cohort numbered 6,839 (65% of total voters), and 5,312 of them (78%) voted.

That group cast 76 percent of all the votes in the bond measure election.

Slightly more women voted than men: 3,590 of the 5,225 women registered, 51.3%, vs. 3,309 of 5,190 registered men, 47.5%. Sixty-eight voters, about 1 percent, did not list a gender.

In terms of party affiliation, 81% of Republicans (3,866 of 4,747) voted, compared with 75% of Democrats (1,346 of 1,805) and 41 percent of non-affiliated voters (1,320 of 3,254).

“The majority of these voters seem to be pretty fiscally conservative,” Potter said. “That’s something to keep in mind.”

Unfortunately, precinct voting reveals little to help the District plan a strategy in that regard.

“A lot of times you can look through these precinct numbers and they can tell you a lot,” Potter said.

But in this case, the Nov. 6 measure was soundly defeated in every precinct wholly within Baker County.

“The message there is voters were not happy with this particular voter package,” Potter said of the precinct-by-precinct rejection of the plan. “You need to go back to the table and come back with a package that will be more palatable with voters.”

And most particularly with older voters, given their reliably high turnout.

“We really need to work on gaining support of the older voters and finding a package they can afford and support,” Potter said.

Director Julie Huntington pointed to another strategy.

“The second piece of finding a comfortable package for the 60-plus voters is converting the nonvoters to voters,” Huntington said.

Potter pointed out that younger voters, who in most cases are parents of current students, should be easily accessible to the District to provide information about the next proposal.

“If it’s the right package, the parents should come along,” she said. “It’s easy to reach parents. It’s harder to reach the older voters. They don’t have a built-in mechanism for meeting with you like the parents do.”

How people voted

A post-election survey of 387 district patrons showed that 132 (34%) respondents supported the bond measure while 255 (66%) did not.

The No. 1 reason for support, expressed by 47 people, was to allow the District to build a new elementary school to address overcrowding.

Here’s how supporters ranked five other reasons presented to them on the survey:

• 2. To provide safety and security upgrades at all schools.

• 3. To move seventh- and eighth-graders to the high school.

• 4. To provide energy efficiency upgrades at all the schools.

• 5. Because it would benefit children/grandchildren enrolled in the district.

• 6. To provide more vocational opportunities and advanced classes for seventh- and eighth-graders.

The 207 respondents who ranked reasons why they voted against the measure cited the No. 1 reason as “asking too much money at one time.”

Here’s how they ranked the six other choices:

• 2. Taxes are already too high.

• 3. District is not a good steward of tax money.

• 4. Would rather remodel than build a new elementary school.

• 5. Not enough information about the bond.

• 6. Don’t want to combine middle school with high school.

• 7. Don’t believe there’s an urgency to address bond issues.

Of the 122 Baker School District employees included in the post-election survey, 62% voted in favor and 38% voted against the measure.

Respondents to the public survey were also asked how much they would be willing to increase their property taxes for school improvements.

The option that received the most support — 23% of respondents — would increase the tax rate by 79 cents per $1,000 of assessed value for 15 years. That would raise $16 million for improvements.

Another 23% of respondents said they wouldn’t support a bond of any amount, even if that meant the district would forego a $4 million grant from the state.

Among district employees who agreed to take the survey, there were equal numbers (24% each) who supported $1.86 per $1,000 for 10 years to raise $20 million, and 79 cents per $1,000 for 15 years ($16 million).

Another 8% of staff members said they wouldn’t support any bond measure.

Facilities Committee

In addition to reviewing the post-election results, Board members and administrators met with members of the Long Range Facilities Planning Committee that helped advise the District about the bond measure and with other community members and business leaders to gather more information.

“People who said no, say we know we have to spend something,” Superintendent Mark Witty said of his conversations and review of comments.

He added, however, that he does not believe the community is willing to pay to build a new school based on those conversations and remarks.

“I was a little surprised on how engaged respondents were on safety and security,” director Andrew Bryan said of the post-election survey results and in conversations with community members.

Bryan credited a letter to the editor written in October by Chris Hawkins, board chair and an Oregon State Police officer, for bringing the issue to the forefront for voters.

“It seemed like a ‘don’t leave abandoned buildings’ thread went through (comments),” Witty added.

“I certainly saw that,” Huntington said, noting comments such as “ ‘you had a building, you got rid of a building; you had a school, got rid of a school and now you need a school again.’ I saw that repeatedly.”

That sentiment referred to Churchill School, which the school district sold more than a decade ago.

Bryan expressed frustration with comments about the District’s past lack of maintenance of its properties.

“I even heard that from children of people who were administrators at the time we didn’t take care of our buildings,” he said.

Witty said he will address the issue with information perhaps to be published in a future edition of the Bulldog Pride newsletter by outlining what the district has done over the past 10 years and why.

“We have $800,000 targeted for maintenance in the next budget cycle,” he said. “We did more in previous years.”

Witty pointed to state grants that provided about $2.6 million to make seismic upgrades at Brooklyn Primary School and Baker High School last year. And the District hopes to receive similar grants this year to continue that work.

“We are making pretty strong, consistent investment in the facilities,” he said.

Baker was like many other Districts that did have to defer maintenance in the past, he said.

ANALYZING THE SCHOOL BOND

OVERALL RESULTS — 6,981 votes cast

• NO: 4,760; YES: 2,221

AGES 45 and older (6,839 voters)

• Turnout: 5,312 (78%; 76% of votes cast)

AGES 35-44 (1,357 voters)

• Turnout: 782 (58%; 11% of votes cast)

AGES 25-34 (1,564 voters)

• Turnout: 629 (40%; 9% of votes cast)

AGES 18-24 (742 voters)

• Turnout: 243 (33%; 3.5% of votes cast)

See more in the April 12, 2019, issue of the Baker City Herald.

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