Archive for Thursday, March 31, 2005

School bonds return to ballot

March 31, 2005


Two years ago, Jim Mullins' anti-tax sentiments prevailed.

Lawrence voters rejected a $59 million bond issue aimed at renovating, expanding or replacing worn-out schools.

All the school board wanted to do, Mullins said, was "spend a bunch of money -- not because they needed to but because they could."

The bond issue's defeat, said Mullins, a former Reform Party candidate for the Kansas Senate, meant Lawrence residents were fed up with taxes.

But school officials pinned the loss on the vote coinciding with a controversial decision to close East Heights and Centennial elementary schools.

Those affected by the closings organized. Before long, the bond-issue vote evolved into a referendum on the benefits of maintaining small, neighborhood schools.

Since then, East Heights and Centennial schools have been closed. Tempers have cooled.

On Tuesday, voters will again decide whether to raise their property taxes 2.25 mills to bankroll almost $63 million in improvements:

    An upcoming bond issue deals with, among other things, the locker
rooms at Lawrence High School, where girls have to pass through the
boys' locker room to reach the weight room.

    An upcoming bond issue deals with, among other things, the locker rooms at Lawrence High School, where girls have to pass through the boys' locker room to reach the weight room.

  • $54 million for building renovations, additions and new construction.
  • $8.8 on technology upgrades throughout the district.

So far, opposition has been limited to an occasional barb during public forums and recent letters to the editor.

"It's certainly not like it was in 2003," said Sue Morgan, a school board member and bond issue supporter. "From my perspective, that's good, but there's a downside as well because without that opposition, there's been less discussion. There's still some confusion out there."

Morgan and others say the questions they've encountered most often include:

    Question 1: Allow $54 million for improvements at seven schools. The bulk of the money - $31.9 million -- would build a new South Junior High School and improve Broken Arrow School.Question 2: Provide $8.9 million for technology, including laptop computers and wireless Internet access.What they will do:South Junior High and Broken Arrow schools: $31.9 million to remove and replace South Junior High and improve Broken Arrow, including asbestos removal, new special-education rooms and an art room. It also would finance construction of a cafeteria for each school and a shared kitchen, and eliminate portable classrooms.Other junior highs: $16.7 million to add classrooms and eliminate portables, modify or build gyms, and expand the Southwest cafeteria.High schools: $5.4 million to renovate locker rooms and science labs, build a new entrance to the east gym and add space for three science labs at LHS. The money also would finance labs for welding and other courses at Free State High School.Technology: $8.9 million to expand computer networks and buy nearly 2,000 laptop computers and software. It also would allow wireless Internet access in all classrooms and offices in the district -- about 800 rooms.
  • "Why are we putting all this money into buildings when there isn't enough money to give teachers a pay raise?"

State law prohibits school districts from issuing bonds to pay teachers. Instead, teacher salaries are considered a state responsibility and, in general, are subject to how much a district receives in state aid.

But a school district's buildings are considered a local responsibility and can be only be financed through property taxes and bonds.

"State statute prohibits us from issuing bonds to cover general fund operating expenses," Morgan said.

  • "It doesn't make sense to rebuild South Junior High at its current location since it's in a neighborhood that's landlocked and unlikely to grow. A better plan would be to build farther east to accommodate development east of Prairie Park."

Currently, most of the area east of Prairie Park is zoned for industry, warehouses and office parks.

"It's not residential," Morgan said, adding: "The planning commission has been debating this for months. But right now, as far as anybody knows or can tell us, that area is planned for industrial-warehouse-office."

The neighborhoods within South Junior High's boundaries are hardly landlocked, she said.

"People tend to put South Junior High together with the Broken Arrow neighborhood, when, actually, its boundaries goall the way out to the developments going in south of the Wakarusa (River). It's very centrally located, and its enrollment has been going up for at least the last four years -- not dramatically, but it's not declining, either."

Bringing in a consulting firm such as the Overland Park-based DLR Group made the most sense, said board member Cindy Yulich.

To oversee the projects, the district can hire additional staff and expertise or contract with DLR.

"After the cuts we've made in our administrative overhead, we really don't want our administrators spending their time working on buildings, we want them focused on educating kids. That's all they have time for," Yulich said.

Also, DLR was the low bidder at 3.5 percent of the projects' actual construction costs.

"We checked;that's very reasonable," Yulich said. "Shawnee Mission, Turner, Garner, Hiawatha, Emporia -- they've all used DLR, and they all recommend them."

If the bond issue passes, DLR will oversee only seven of the 10 proposed construction projects. The seven projects are expected to cost $40 million.

DLR's fees will be based on 3.5 percent of the $40 million, not 3.5 percent of the $54 million package.

The firm will be involved in the proposed technology upgrades.

But Mullins and probably others remain unswayed.

"I've only talked to two people who are going to vote for this," he said. "The school board and the administration don't have the confidence of the voters. They're not spending our money wisely."

Mullins hasn't spoken to Julie Jasperson, a bond issue supporter whose fourth- and eighth-grade sons attend Lawrence schools.

"I disagree with him," she said. "I think the bond issue is desperately needed for the safety and security of my children and students throughout the district."

South Junior High, she said, should have been bulldozed years ago. It bothers her that in the wake of the Red Lake, Minn., school shootings, her sons are often in portable classrooms "with no security at any time."

And students' access to computers lags behind that in other districts. "My younger son uses a computer (at school) once a week, if eventhen," she said.

Jasperson said her neighbors stood ready to support the bond issue.

"We can't just let our infrastructure crumble," she said. "I think it's going to pass this time. I certainly hope so."

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