The Lawrence school board is now weighing the idea of asking voters to approve upward of $85 million in a new bond issue, even though many openly admit they are pessimistic about the future of public school funding in Kansas.
The board received its first preliminary estimates Monday night of how large a bond issue it would need to upgrade all 14 elementary schools, enhance computer and audio-video technology throughout the district, and repair or replace mechanical, electrical and plumbing equipment in all elementary, middle schools and high schools.
Consultants with the design firm Gould Evans and Associates said those items would come to about $85.4 million. That’s within the range that district officials have said is possible without requiring a tax increase and without having to ask the state of Kansas for permission to exceed the district’s cap on bonded indebtedness.
But other items that board members have talked about — such as providing new facility space for career and technical education, replacing older kitchen and food service equipment, and expanding Sunset Hill and Kennedy Schools, among other items — would take another $12.6 million.
That would bring the total bond issue to slightly more than $98 million.
“When I look at our situation between the budget, and also the bond issue, to me it’s all kind of one big block,” said board member Bob Byers. “Everyone is concerned about budgets statewide, and we’re at a time when we’re looking at going for a bond issue in the middle of a state financial crisis, possibly.”
Byers said later he was referring to the multibillion-dollar package of tax cuts that Gov. Sam Brownback and the Kansas Legislature approved earlier this year.
Supporters of that plan say they’re confident the tax cuts will spur economic growth in the state, which will at least partially offset the cost of the tax cuts.
But official revenue estimates project the changes will reduce state revenues by about $1 billion over the next fiscal year.
Brownback has vowed to “protect” education spending, but critics of the plan say that will be impossible, given that funding of public schools makes up about half of all state general fund spending.
Regardless of what happens with base state aid for schools, however, local districts have authority to levy separate taxes for bond and interest payments.
Still, some board members started expressing concern Monday night about the image of a district embarking on a large construction project at the same time it may also be forced to cut general operating budgets.
Board President Vanessa Sanburn said she shared Byers’ concern about future state funding for schools.
“Clearly, the tax cuts that were voted in the last legislative session will have ramifications for school district budgets, unless miracles happen like what the governor is projecting,” Sanburn said. “A lot of other people looking at the numbers don’t have high hopes for the job creation that’s going to spur the tax revenue to solve the budget deficit.”
Superintendent Rick Doll said the Lawrence district can afford to issue up to $110 million in new bonds without requiring a tax increase, largely because the district is retiring old bonds this year.
School board members have said their top priority is to improve facilities at the six older elementary schools in central and east Lawrence, to bring them up to standards comparable with the newer grade schools in west Lawrence.
The estimated cost for those six buildings — Cordley, Hillcrest, Kennedy, New York, Pinckney and Sunset Hill — comes to $47.5 million, or slightly more than half of the total base package.
Of those, Hillcrest School would be the most expensive, at an estimated $9.8 million.
A large part of the cost for those six schools would be new construction to provide additional classroom space, add gymnasiums or cafeterias, and replace “portable” buildings with permanent structures.
The architects estimated that those six schools combined require 107,327 square feet of additional space to bring them up to the same space standards as the district’s newer buildings.
Costs for renovations to the eight other elementary schools in the district were pegged at about $23.2 million.
The detailed report provided to the board was expected to be posted Tuesday on the district’s website.
The board plans to approve a final project scope and cost estimates by the first of the year, then vote to place a ballot issue on the April 2 ballot asking voters to approve a bond issue.