Archive for Sunday, March 30, 2003

School bond issues find mixed receptions in state

March 30, 2003


Shawnee Heights schools Supt. Gary Reynolds felt the sting of school-bond defeat not once, but twice, in the past year.

In September, voters in his district southeast of Topeka rejected a $32.5 million bond issue by 47 votes. Confident support could be increased with a better informational campaign, the Shawnee Heights board put an identical package on the November ballot.

"The second time it lost by 2,000 votes," Reynolds said.

As Lawrence voters go to the polls Tuesday to pass judgment on a $59 million bond issue for Lawrence schools, the experiences of other area districts and the fates of their recent bond issues show it's hard to predict how such proposals will be received.

If the area results are any indication, Lawrence's bond issue -- which would finance construction and renovation at 15 buildings -- doesn't stand much of a chance. Besides the Shawnee Heights defeat, school bond packages also were shot down in the past year in the Ottawa, Basehor-Linwood and DeSoto districts.

Foiled once in an effort to win public endorsement of a $29.9 million bond in the Basehor-Linwood district, Pam Poe is convinced the time is right to invest in the district's school facilities.

The mother of three children will have her theory tested Tuesday when voters consider the bond plan a second time.

"We are stubborn, I will say," said Poe, of Basehor.

In January, issuing a bond to build a new middle school, construct additions at two elementary schools and remodel a third elementary school was defeated 997 to 695.

"It failed the first time because we had extremely low voter turnout," said Poe, co-chair of a pro-bond steering committee. "A lot of people didn't turn out because they felt it was going to pass."

Just a quarter of registered voters took part in Basehor-Linwood's special election Jan. 21.

Poe said lingering resentment about closure of Linwood High School years ago was an underlying factor in the first vote.

In Lawrence, proposed consolidation of two elementary schools -- East Heights and Centennial -- is the most controversial element of the bond plan.

In Basehor-Linwood, Supt. Cal Cormack said the district's rising enrollment the past 10 years and anticipated construction of 1,500 homes in the district required change in school facilities.

"I think the board put together a good package that addressed the issues at all levels," Cormack said.

But bond opponent Dave Jons said recycling the bond was improper.

"There's no justification for elected officials to ignore a fair and open election," he said.

It's the economy

The 2-to-1 pounding in Ottawa of a $36 million bond plan was blamed in part on a downturn in the Kansas economy. Sort of a local version of former President Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign mantra -- "It's the economy, stupid."

"The economy is the big factor here," said Louis Reed, a member of the Ottawa school board.

The promise of low interest rates that would have made it less expensive to borrow money for construction of three elementary schools to replace five existing elementary schools and pay for improvements at Ottawa High School couldn't sway voters.

Part of the pro-bond sales pitch in Lawrence, too, has been that the cost of borrowing money is at a 30-year low.

In Ottawa, it didn't matter that a state program would have paid off one-third of the district's bond issue. Lawrence isn't eligible for that bond financing program.

Ottawa Supt. Jan Collins said the size of his district's bond package -- the largest in Ottawa's history -- scared people off.

"It was just too big a bite for a majority of people," he said.

He said another bond likely would be considered in 2004.

Second time charmed

In DeSoto's case, it paid not to get discouraged by voter rejection.

In May, patrons in one of the state's fastest-growing districts rejected a $91.2 million bond issue. It went down by 125 votes in mail-in balloting.

Sharon Zoellner, deputy superintendent of the DeSoto district, said the most important number in that election was that a majority of registered voters didn't participate.

"It went right to their door, and they chose not to vote," she said.

The district revised the bond issue by cutting a district athletics facility and an elementary school. They returned with a $76.7 million package that included three new elementary schools and a middle school.

In November, it passed by more than 1,500 votes.

The second election showed that the district -- torn between older residents in DeSoto and newcomers in Shawnee -- could compromise, said Susan Summerlin, who led a group that supported the second bond issue.

"I'm very pleased we may have turned that corner," she said.

Double-dose defeat

In Shawnee Heights, Reynolds said back-to-back defeats of the $32.5 million bond left people scratching their heads. It was agonizing to lose by 47 votes the first time, he said, but a 2,000-vote rejection was devastating.

"We probably need to, in some fashion, survey the patrons of the district to find out what they will support," the superintendent said.

In addition to $20 million in deferred maintenance, the bond would have financed a new library, cafeteria, 1,000-seat auditorium and administration office at the high school.

Reynolds said a decisive factor in both elections was that antibond forces repeatedly put the district on the defensive.

"We had no credibility," he said. "Maybe that was because we're part of government."

Opponents argued the economy was too weak to pass a bond issue, too much money was earmarked for deferred maintenance and consultants would make too much money.

Those three issues also have surfaced in the Lawrence bond campaign.

Reynolds said the next bond might go to a vote in 2004, and it won't likely be a retread of the previous plan.

"Next time, there might be more than one option," he said. "We're not sure yet."

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