Signs of opposition
Opposition group joins school bond discussion
Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of Mirror stories examining aspects of USD 464’s $26.9 million bond issue.
Despite joining a group working to defeat Tonganoxie USD 464’s proposed $26.9 million bond issue, Gretchen Busche agrees a new school is needed.
“I couldn’t agree more we have to have another grade school,” she said. “The current conditions are not acceptable.”
Still, Busche will not only vote against the bond issue but has joined with a group of USD 464 residents actively working to defeat the measure on the April 5 ballot.
Speaking for herself and not the group or its other members, Busche said the proposed bond package would add a new intermediate school with too few classrooms while building unneeded items such as the new high school connecting addition, which she says would have a too-elaborate façade and space for a new district office that could be found elsewhere.
“Right now, I don’t think our concern needs to be with the high school or building new administrative offices,” she said. “I know lots of people worked on this, but it’s still not what it should be considering the money we will have to put out to get this done.”
Should the bond pass, the second- through fifth-grade elementary school will open in August 2014 at 80 percent capacity. Busche said because the district starts gearing up for bond issues when a building gets to 85 percent capacity, the district was squeezing the span between the new school’s opening and the need for its next bond issue.
Adding two classrooms to each middle school wing and keeping the fifth-grade in that building would provide taxpayers more breathing room before being asked to approve the next bond, Busche said.
Busche and Dale Woodyard, another member of the group opposing the bond, said there were less expensive options for district offices. Busche suggested they could be located in the current downtown elementary school when it was remodeled.
Chris Niemeyer, who is now working with the pro-bond Quality for Kids group, was one of those who served on the facilities planning committee that developed the bond package. It was, he said, a long process in which the committee of district patrons, faculty and other stakeholders discussed plans, which the district administration then discussed with its consultants and faculty, before bringing an improved plan back to the committee for another round of refinement. All the while, the district sought and welcomed community involvement at the meetings, he said.
“Throughout the last two-and-a-half years — almost three — iterations of the plan were discussed with positives added on and bad ideas dropped,” he said. “I absolutely defend all the projects. The kids in this community will benefit on all levels with infrastructure improvements and safe, 21st century learning environments. When you can say everyone benefits, that’s powerful.”
The middle school would benefit from rooms made available by moving the fifth-grade to the new building, and high school students would have a safer, healthier environment with the corridor linking the two current buildings, Niemeyer said.
If Busche and Woodyard see the bond package as the wrong solution, they also see it as the wrong time with Tonganoxie, the state and the country still recovering from the recession.
The city’s population growth has stalled, Buschee said, and residents can see evidence of that through homes for sale, foreclosures or impending foreclosures throughout the city.
“The average person can’t afford to be paying for another bond issue every four years and tacking on additional taxes,” she said. “Until our economy picks up, we need to do as much as we can to use our resources efficiently.”
Niemeyer counters that the bond is overdue. It is indisputable the city’s population grew by 86 percent in the past decade, the district’s enrollment grew by 25 percent and the elementary school has an enrollment of 690 students in a school designed for 500, he said.
But even with the current demonstrated need, the district put off going ahead with the bond issue in 2009 and 2010 because of the economy, Niemeyer said.
“At least two times before, it wasn’t the right time,” he said. “I would simply ask, ‘When is a good time?’ The reality of the situation is, classes continue to grow, kids continue to go to classes in modulars and high school students continue to walk between buildings.
“That’s not going to change.”
The district could enjoy some advantages in bond costs from the current economic environment from lower interest rates and construction costs, Niemeyer said.
But a larger timing issue is the uncertainty surrounding the state program providing assistance for school bond projects, Niemeyer said. A move that would reduce Tonganoxie’s share of state aid from at least 25 percent to a maximum of 15 percent is now in the Kansas Senate, having passed the House. If the Tonganoxie bond issue passes April 5, its projects would be grandfathered in at the current rate before the bill — should it pass through the Legislature — becomes effective July 1.
USD 464 Superintendent Kyle Hayden said any attempt by the Legislature to back out of current commitments would invite lawsuits.
“Who knows if that will be available after July 1,” Niemeyer said. “That would be $2.5 million local taxpayers would have to make up.”
But as the state continues to deal with its financial difficulties, there is no assurance the state aid would be available, Buschee said.
“The state aid might not be there even if the bond doesn’t pass,” she said. “There is nothing written in stone guaranteeing this funding.”
Both pro- and anti-bond groups will take their cases to voters in the nearly two weeks before the April 5 referendum. Niemeyer said Quality for Kids would continue its community outreach and door-to-door activities.
Buschee said her group is planning similar outreach and door-to-door activities. The group will also have a community informational meeting at 3 p.m. Saturday at Tonganoxie VFW 9271. Hayden has been invited to give the district’s bond informational presentation and time will be allotted for questions and discussion, she said.