District debt ( .PDF )
Paying for it
Kyle Hayden, assistant superintendent for operations and business, and Kathy Johnson, director of finance, explained the district’s financial situation in a recent interview, saying they support the board members’ assertion that a bond issue can go forward without raising taxes.
• $55,555,000: The total debt the district will have at the end of this year. That’s about 6 percent of the total valuation, and districts can have up to 14 percent of total valuation in debt, according to state law.
• $136,593,411: The total “allowed” debt — 14 percent of value. Some districts have gotten state go-ahead to have more than the cap. Eudora has more than 100 percent — its debt is bigger than its value.
• 58.234 mills: The school levy as it stands now. It puts the district in about the middle of the state ranking; Gardner-Edgerton has the highest with 82.6 and Liberal the lowest with 40.5. Board members have said that they hope to pass a bond issue that doesn’t raise the school district mill levy, so property taxes would stay the same.
• $4,784: The amount of debt the Lawrence district has per student.
The Lawrence school board is working on a bond issue, set to go to public vote in April. Committees are still formulating details of what it will entail — and how much it will cost — but three overall goals have emerged.
That is, three goals for what they want in the bond issue; a fourth clear goal is how they want to get it passed: without raising taxes.
In open meetings and interviews, board members and district administration have outlined three basic goals for what they’d like to see:
• “Revamping” elementary schools
• Improving technology throughout the district
• Bolstering career education for high schoolers
The emphasis in planning so far is on the elementary schools, which will form the bulk of the cost and work of the issue.
“The main focus is getting our elementary schools to an adequate — even exceptional — level for 21st century learning,” Superintendant Rick Doll said.
The board hired architecture firm Gould Evans last month to begin the planning process by assessing needs, especially in the “east-central” elementary schools, many of which were targeted in the failed consolidation talks last year.
“The reality is that the community has made it clear that they want all schools open,” board member Bob Byers said. “Now it’s time for the community to take the next step: If they’re open, we need to fix them up.”
Not all schools will need major renovations, board members say, but they’ll all be considered for “creating collaborative community learning spaces” and evaluating efficiencies of mechanical systems. Put another way, the old schools need significant upgrades, but even the newer schools could use fresh ideas for how to use their space, and more energy-efficient infrastructure saves money all around.
“We want to rectify disparity,” said board member Keith Diaz Moore, who is on the committee that hired Gould Evans.
Doll has said that the bond would allow the district to get rid of mobile classrooms and improve ADA compliance in Cordley School. Other building-related goals brought up by those involved include:
• Adequately sized libraries for all schools.
• Removing “cafe-gym-a-toriums,” as Diaz Moore put it, or having designated space for designated activities.
Elementary school building improvements appear to be the biggest priority in the bond issue talks, but improving technology systemwide goes hand-in-hand, board members said. Older elementary schools don’t have the wiring to support large computer labs or wireless needs.
Kansas software company Alexander Open Systems is working with the bond issue committees and in the midst of an audit to come up with ideas of how best to equip the schools when it comes to technology.
Many of those details haven’t been decided or released yet, but those involved have made it clear that upgrades to the district’s technological capacity will be part of the plan. They say this addresses the “excellence and equity” sections of the yearly goals.
Board member Shannon Kimball said that the planning process would also provide information about capital planning for the long-term, regardless of passage of a bond issue now.
Another issue is career education in the two high schools and the idea to have a centrally located building for those classes, board president Vanessa Sanburn said.
How much it will cost
Of those members interviewed, only Diaz Moore gave an estimate, which he said was rough: $90 million to $100 million. By state statute, a school district can have up to 14 percent of its assessed valuation in debt.
The Lawrence district’s debt is 5.69 percent of its valuation for the 2012-13 year. By comparison, Topeka had 5.51 percent debt last year and Manhattan had 19 percent.
Board member Rick Ingram said he thought the bond issue “could be done with a decrease in property tax” because the district is paying off many debts this year. But most board members say that the bond proposal will include a flat mill levy — no more or less taxes than those assessed this year.
“We’re doing our best to be responsible stewards of their money,” Kimball said about taxpayers.
At the board meeting Monday, Doll said Gould Evans would begin giving weekly reports of the planning process.
They’re continuing to interview teachers and staff, he said, and “community engagement,” or holding open meetings about proposals, will begin next month.
The board and staff have set the end of the calendar year as their deadline for a refined plan, with January and April being their campaign season to get support before an election.
If it were to pass in April, it would affect schools beginning in the 2014-15 school year.
The last bond election was in April 2005, and several board members acknowledged that frustration with its results would be a challenge in getting this bond issue passed.
“People feel they didn’t get what they thought they voted for,” Ingram said, “but none of the current board voted to do that, and we’re aware that we need to be transparent; it’s about regaining trust.”
They say they’re aware of financial concern, too. If the bond issue doesn’t pass, the mill levy — and thus, property taxes — would almost certainly go down.
But supporters of the bond say that elementary school improvements are needed, and this year is the time to make them.
“We have to invest in our future,” Doll said. “We can do better for these kids.”