A Community at Odds

On Tuesday, November 10, Election Day, Coos Bay parents, teachers, students, and community members went to bed not knowing the outcome of a modest bond measure that would renovate and repair old schools and build new ones. One of the schools to be rebuilt, an elementary school, is sinking into the earth, crushing the pipes below the foundation while separating stairs from doorways. And oh, by the way, it's in a tsunami zone. An elementary school... sinking into the earth... in a tsunami zone... with 600 kids in it. Should be pretty easy to build support to fix it, right? 

Alas, easy it was not. "Election results show a community at odds," the headline from The World, the local paper, read on November 10. 

The results were emblematic of two sides in the campaign. One faction, led by a band of ultra-conservative Republican party leaders, said, "We’re not in a position to fix the school district’s problems. All we can offer are opinions." The other faction, led by a broad coalition of community leaders and businesses across partisan lines, said, "As a community, it is up to us to keep our buildings current and safe for our children."

A community at odds, indeed.

On election night, each side enjoyed a lead -- for a time. But when the election night parties were over and campaign volunteers had gone to bed, it was still too close to call. The results wouldn't be finalized for a couple weeks. The kids would have to wait a little bit longer.

On November 22, the day before Thanksgiving, the results were certified. The bond measure -- and the students, teachers, and community -- had won, and with almost no room to spare. The final tally was 3973 (50.18%) votes in favor, 3945 (49.82%) votes against. A razor-thin, 28 vote margin of victory. "It's a terrific day," said the Chair of the Bond Committee in an interview with The World. The schools are going to get better. Coos Bay will soon build schools that are at least a little bit closer to the schools that kids in the community deserve. At the very least, the schools will be safer. They won't be sinking into the ground anymore. All that, no doubt, makes November 22 a terrific day.

The Vice Chair of the local Republican Party, who led the faction fighting against the bond, disagreed. He blamed the results on low turnout and "registered voters" who "live on the Indian Reservation." Yes, he really said that. "They get to use our public schools without paying anything toward property taxes. This is not right," he said, without any hint of irony, nor any awareness of history. 

If the Vice Chair gets another interview request, here's a better a statement he could use: "While we disagreed with the solution they offered, we applaud the advocates of the bond campaign for a job well done. They worked hard for a cause they believe deeply in, and there's no doubt this will improve our local schools."

Maybe next time, I guess.

There are a few lessons to be learned from the Coos Bay bond measure campaign. First, and most importantly, this ballot measure campaign did not occur in isolation. There's a critical broader context. Coos Bay was economically ravaged by factors outside of their control in the 1980s and 1990s.

From Don Ivy at the Partnership for Local Watersheds: "Mills not only closed, they were dismantled and torn down; docks and piers and log yards became derelict and decayed. Many businesses that had served those industries and enterprises and their workers for generations also ended or were substantially diminished. Retail stores closed. Jobs were gone. Unemployment and family poverty soared. People left town. Coos County’s population declined significantly." Coos Bay, and the people who live there, have been hurting for a few decades.

There's not a lot of money to go around, but there sure is a lot of need. The Coos Bay School District reports that there were 300 homeless students in the district this year (ten of them have already dropped out), so they offer a Clothes Closet and a Food Pantry so kids can get the basics they need to literally survive. While the schools need critical investment, in infrastructure and otherwise, they're not alone. According to Ivy: "wastewater treatment facilities need critical maintenance and upgrades; streets suffer from decades of deferred repairs and improvements; local tax bases barely cover the costs of public safety and emergency services; and the shop worn appearances of downtown business districts hint every day of an economy that is surviving, but clearly not thriving."

The lesson? Sometimes a school bond campaign isn't just about a school bond. Oregon needs to do more for Coos Bay -- and the rest of rural Oregon that's been devastated by dramatic shifts in the global economy.

But there's another, less complex lesson to be learned here, too: your vote matters a lot, and not just to you. Next time you're questioning whether, in our loud and messy democratic system, your voice actually matters, I hope you'll remember Coos Bay. The kids of Coos Bay will soon get new, safe schools because 28 people decided to turn in their ballots instead of giving in to cynicism.