Local voters will face a number of issues and candidate races when they go to the polls Tuesday, but none may be more important than the $29.9 million school bond issue that will be on the general election ballot.
The bond issue is aimed at providing adequate classroom space for Lawrence's children. It would build two new elementary schools and a fourth junior high school. It also would fund expansion of Wakarusa Valley School and extensive renovations at Central Junior High School and Lawrence High School.
The space is needed now. Seventeen portable classrooms currently are in use at South and West junior high schools. They provide classroom space, but they don't ease the overcrowding in common areas like the gymnasium, lunchroom or library.
In the last 17 years, the district has built one new elementary school. During just the last 10 years, the district has added 1,705 elementary students. Renovations at the high school would provide basic upgrades, by adding library space, improving student traffic flow within the building and upgrading plumbing, electrical and mechanical systems.
Planning for the future needs of Lawrence schools is a complicated proposition. School bond opponents question whether the plan would complicate a possible switch to a middle school system that would change junior highs into middle schools for seventh- and eighth-graders and add ninth-graders to four-year high schools. The current bond issue does nothing to lessen the district's flexibility in dealing with secondary schools.
School officials have stated their plan to build a new junior high school so that it easily could be transformed into a middle school at a later date. Improvements to the Lawrence High School and additional elementary school space will be needed regardless of what decisions are made later to deal with overcrowding at the high school. That is another important issue the district will face within a few years, but it shouldn't affect Tuesday's vote. The improvements to be funded by the $29.9 million bond issue will not be wasted effort, regardless of what the district does concerning expanding or splitting its high school or switching to a middle school plan.
The bond issue will mean higher taxes, but not as high as district taxpayers have been paying. The state's new school finance program lowered property taxes for next year and will supply $5.4 million from a capital improvements fund to assist with the local district's building projects. The district estimates it will cost an average 6.23 mills per year to repay the proposed bond issue over the next 15 years, about 68 cents a week for the owner of a $60,000 home. That seems like little enough to pay for the 78 new classrooms the bond issue will provide.
Schools are a basic service taxpayers provide in a community just like roads, police protection and utility services. They are important not just to our children but to the community as a whole. Good schools are important to those who have children, but they also are important to businesses looking for a place to relocate, business people looking for good employees and anyone interested in having Lawrence be a community of well-educated, self-sufficient people.
The bond issue won't supply educational frills; it is aimed at providing educational basics. It is a measure local voters should support.