Archive for Wednesday, April 28, 2004

School board wants vote on bonds

District works on $25 million project

April 28, 2004

When it comes to school construction proposals, Tonganoxie school board members are on the same track.

At the upcoming May 10 school board meeting, it's possible that the board will decide whether to put $25 million worth of school construction on the November ballot. The plan entails:

  • Construction of a 5-8 middle school on the district's 80 acres.
  • Renovation of the existing grade school into a K-4 facility.
  • Construction at the existing junior high/high school campus to convert it into a 9-12 high school campus, and to add other features, including a new fine arts auditorium, additional gymnasium seating, a commons area along the front of the high school building and a shell for a vocational classroom building.

Three years of work

When school board members were contacted by The Mirror, the general consensus was the plan would take care of the district's needs for years to come. But board members also agreed that the real decision will not be made by them -- but by the voters.

"We've worked on this project for three years," said Ron Moore. "We've got significant overcrowding in the grade school -- in my view that's the problem we're really trying to solve. ... We're seeing some small growth in our enrollments -- we need to have a long-range plan to be able to handle that."

As to whether voters will commit to the project by approving a bond issue, Moore and the other board members are uncertain.

"I don't know," Moore said. "I think if it was just a stand-alone 5-8 school it would probably have a better chance of passing."

Moore noted the high school's proposed construction costs.

"I think there's probably $8 million to $10 million of expenses in the high school," Moore said. "I think that may be of some concern to some people, but we need to be proactive."

Moore noted that construction managers from Turner Construction, architects from DLR Group and school administrators had been working to fine-tune plans and cut costs.

"I think that probably we've done all we can, short of cutting some space," Moore said.

For example, the district is considering extending the bond issue from 20 to 25 years.

"And, there's been some discussion with the bond consultant about paying interest only the first year," Moore said. "This would reduce the mill levy in the early years."

Then, as the population continues to grow, Moore said, there would be a larger tax base over which to spread the tax burden.

The final decision will be left to the voters, he said.

"I think the voters of the community who pay the taxes will make a decision," Moore said.

And if it doesn't pass, Moore said, it will be back to the drawing board.

"Hopefully you'll find out what they didn't like about the plan," Moore said. "My personal preference if it didn't pass is that we zero in on the minimum problem of overcrowding at the grade school, which would probably be a stand alone 5-8 facility, something like that."

Up to the voters

Kay Smith referred to a comment Moore had made at a board meeting.

"Mr. Moore has said it's not up to us -- it's up to the voters, and I agree with him," Smith said.

The construction plan would be a good fit for the district, she said.

"I think it's a great comprehensive plan that would take care of the needs of the community for a long time," Smith said.

She noted the proposed plan's price tag.

"It's over the threshold of pain that the voters will accept," Smith said. "The facilities committee had decided a long time ago that $15 million was the threshold of pain."

Smith observed that although the grade school, which has an enrollment of more than 800, is overcrowded, the faculty and staff were handling it well.

"The elementary teachers are so good at just working with what they have," Smith said. "They're so positive about working in really cramped conditions. They don't mind going to the Quonset hut, they don't mind going to the trailers. ... They do a good job every day at putting out the mix, which means taking care of business."

Cost more later

Bob DeHoff said the plan would work for the district.

"I think we need to proceed," DeHoff said. "I think the plan fits what our needs are long-term as well as any plan could. If we wait, it's just going to cost more."

The plan, DeHoff said, leaves room for growth.

"It's big enough in scope that we won't have to be doing it again for a while," DeHoff said. "Of if we don't do something now, it's going to end up costing more because we're going to have to piece this together."

The voters DeHoff has talked to about the plan are in favor of doing something, he said, and he thinks it's likely $25 million is about the most voters would possibly approve.

"I think it's on the high side of what we can get passed," DeHoff said.

And should a bond issue fail, DeHoff's uncertain about the next step.

"I don't want to think past that," DeHoff said. "I'd just as soon tackle that if we get to it. I don't think it's wise to plan for contingency at this point."

Board president Rick Lamb said he's satisfied with the plans.

"I feel real good about it," Lamb said. "I'm very enthusiastic about the plan. I think that it addresses our needs, that it fits our curriculum and it's something that we've put a lot of time and effort into."

The elementary school's needs triggered the rest of the plans, Lamb said.

"It was the starting point for looking at the entire master plan," Lamb said.

And, if voters decide against the bond issue, Lamb said he'd want to know why.

"I think I would probably want to get more feedback from people as to why they voted against it before we initiate another plan," Lamb said.

Get out the positive vote

Leana Leslie said she's definitely in favor of the plan.

"In looking at it long-term. ... I really don't know what you could cut that you're not going to turn around in five years or less and ask for it again," Leslie said.

District patrons who are not directly involved with the schools may have a harder time seeing a need because, as Leslie said, they're not seeing the makeshift way things are operated, particularly at the grade school. She noted that kindergarten students have physical education in a hallway because one gym doubles as a cafeteria.

"I think there's some people in the community that know this is necessary," Leslie said. "I'm just hoping they all go out to vote."

Whether the bond issue passes or fails, something needs to be done.

"We can't continue to go the way we are," Leslie said. "We're looking at mobile unit after mobile unit, we're looking at the Quonset hut and putting two regular classrooms inside there. I see that as being only a temporary fix for one or two years."

Everybody gets something

For Darlyn Hansen, the proposed plan would be a long-term fix for the growth that is coming.

And, the construction plans would benefit students in all grades.

"Everybody gets something out of the project that we've got," Hansen said. "Not just one phase of it -- all students will be affected by the outcome of the building program."

Hansen said he realized some voters might think $25 million was too much to pay for school construction.

"I wish I could get by for $1.98, but that's not going to happen," Hansen said.

Hansen noted that the district would receive about $8 million in assistance from the state. There's no guarantee the state will continue taking on more school construction projects, so it would be good to take advantage of it while it's still there, he said.

"It's too good of an opportunity to pass up at this time," Hansen said. "... Eight million dollars is a lot of money to leave on the table."

Serve the district

Richard Dean said today's lower interest rates, as well as the fact that the state will fund 30 percent of the bond payments on construction, would benefit district patrons.

He also noted school administrators favor the proposed construction plan.

"I feel we've got some good people there that know and are trying to tell us what's best for our situation," Dean said.

And, the new construction would serve the district's growing population, he said.

"It's inevitable that we're going to grow," Dean said. "We don't know at what rate, but we need to be planning for that."

Regarding an increase in property taxes from school construction, Dean said he sympathized with those who are on fixed incomes.

"It's going to be tough for them," Dean said. "I wish there were a way their taxes would be minimized, but I don't know how that could be."

He noted that city, county and state taxes may be on the rise.

"It's a crunch, that's for sure," Dean said. "But I think it's a part of our responsibility. We have to be planning for the future and that time has come."

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