During a recent visit to the Journal-World, Lawrence Superintendent Rick Doll and school board President Vanessa Sanburn were quick to say that a board member’s earlier estimate that a proposed school bond issue could reach $100 million was too high.
Apparently, not by much.
At their meeting Monday night, school board members received preliminary estimates for the bond issue from the design firm Gould Evans, which has been meeting with individual school officials and patrons. The price tag that group came up with was $85.4 million to upgrade all 14 elementary schools and computer and audio-video technology throughout the district as well as to repair or replace mechanical, electrical and plumbing equipment at all district schools. However, if the board goes ahead with other stated goals for the bond issue — including new facilities for career and technical education, replacing kitchen equipment, expanding Sunset Hill and Kennedy schools — the estimate for the bond issue goes up to a little more than $98 million.
That’s pretty close to $100 million. It will be a tall task for school district officials to sell such a large bond issue to local taxpayers, who are bound to have some questions.
The estimates, for instance, include $47.5 million to upgrade the six older elementary schools for which consolidation plans were discussed, adding 107,327 square feet to those buildings, including new gyms, cafeterias and classroom space. According to Sanburn, board members have decided not to pursue any consolidation efforts, but if that is the case, they need to explain clearly to voters why they made that decision. Why is it a better investment for the district and taxpayers to pour $47.5 million into older elementary schools rather than build a couple of new schools and consolidate students into new state-of-the art buildings?
District officials also have touted the fact that they could afford a bond issue of up to $110 million without a tax increase because the district is retiring old bonds. Perhaps the district won’t have to raise taxes to pay off bonds, but there is every possibility that the state will shift some of the responsibility for funding the district’s general fund to local taxpayers. If that happens, the district will either have to raise local taxes or cut its general fund budget, which is used for operating costs and salaries. Some board members reportedly expressed concern Monday about the image of seeking a large bond issue in the face of such general fund uncertainty. They are right to have that concern.
One other concern taxpayers might have is that it seems the consulting design firm would have a natural incentive to make this project as large as possible. The firm’s representatives basically went around to schools and asked what they needed. No wonder the total price tag is so high.
Lawrence has always been supportive of its public schools, but school officials seem headed toward a proposal that may deserve — and get — significant pushback from local taxpayers.