For some Lawrence voters, 2005 bond issue still casts cloud of suspicion

Lawrence school officials acknowledge one hurdle they’ll need to overcome in convincing voters to support a proposed $92.5 million bond issue: the perception held by many in the community that the last time the district issued bonds, at least some of the funds were not used for their intended purpose.

Specifically, critics of the school district argue that some of the money was used to improve football fields and other outdoor athletic facilities when the public was told the bonds were for classrooms and building improvements.

Superintendent Rick Doll and other district officials say those arguments are inaccurate. And while Doll was not superintendent at the time – in fact, the entire school board and much of the district’s upper managers have changed since that 2005 bond issue – Doll says the records indicate a different story.

In April 2005, voters in the district approved a $54.1 million bond issue to pay for additions and improvements at junior high and high schools; to demolish the old South Junior High School and replace it with a new building adjacent to Broken Arrow Elementary; to expand and renovate Broken Arrow; and to “make all other necessary and related improvements.”

A second bond issue that voters approved on the same ballot authorized $8.9 million for technology upgrades throughout the district.

According to Doll, the final construction costs on all the high schools and junior highs came in less than expected, and the district found itself with unspent bond money left over. And so, in 2008, the school board decided to spend the remaining bond funds – combined with capital improvements money as well as private donations – to build some new athletic facilities and upgrade existing ones.

Bond-related funds accounted for about $5 million of the total $16 million spent on the projects, Doll said. Of that, he said, only $1.4 million came from unspent bond funds. About $3.6 million came from interest the district had earned on the deposit of those funds. The rest was financed through lease-purchase agreements.

“There wasn’t anything that was not done with the 2005 bond to save this money,” Doll said. “I mean, it wasn’t like they decided, oh we’re not going to do something so we can save money. What happens, typically, is that you invest the dollars so you earn a little interest and things come in under budget. It’s not unusual at all to have some money left at the end of a bond issue.”

School officials say that while athletic facilities may not have been discussed in the pre-bond planning meetings, those facilities are part of the high school campuses and, therefore, fit within the scope of the bond proposal.

At the time, neither Lawrence High School nor Free State High School had an outdoor sports facility. Doll said Lawrence High had traditionally rented time on the field of Haskell Indian Nations University; Free State played home games on a number of different fields, including Haskell’s stadium and Memorial Stadium at Kansas University.

Even that explanation has left some critics of the school district unsatisfied. Some have argued that the excess money could have been used to fix up elementary schools, a major focus of the upcoming bond election. Others have suggested the money could have been used to repay part of the bond issue and reduce the district’s debt load.

District officials say that first option was not legally possible because of the way the bond proposal was worded on the ballot. That language specifically limited the use of funds to improving high schools, junior highs and one elementary school.

Former school board member Craig Grant, who did serve on the board in 2008, recalled that the decision generated no public controversy at the time.

“I don’t remember that we heard any negative comments from anybody,” Grant said this week. “I don’t remember any public comments made by anyone who said don’t use these proceeds in that way.”

But current school board president Vanessa Sanburn said the perception that previous bond proceeds were misdirected remains an issue with some voters.

“Occasionally I will hear comments from the public about their dissatisfaction with some of the funds from the 2005 bond being used to improve high school athletic facilities,” Sanburn said. “And, I truly understand their frustration. I was not on the board during that time, nor were any of the current board members. Especially considering all of the deferred needs at many of the elementary facilities that existed at that time and do still today, I would have been reluctant to vote on athletic improvements had I been a member of the board at the time the decision was made to enhance athletic facilities. I do, however, understand that restrictions existed that wouldn’t have allowed the funds to be used at elementary schools.”

Sanburn said if voters approve the upcoming bond proposal and the same situation occurs where money is left over at the end of construction, she would urge the board to hold community discussions to decide how to use those excess funds.