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Archive for Friday, March 29, 2013

Voters to have their say on future of Lawrence schools

March 29, 2013

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After three years of public wrangling over how many school buildings Lawrence should have and how best to operate them, voters in the Lawrence school district will finally have their say when they go to the polls on Tuesday.

At issue is a $92.5 million bond proposal that would enable the district to keep all 14 neighborhood elementary schools open by refurbishing older schools in central and east Lawrence, adding more classroom space and modernizing buildings to make them more secure and energy efficient.

Of that, $80.3 million would go for construction, repairs and enhancements at the 14 elementary schools. Details of the plans for each building can be viewed on the school district website.

It also includes $6.5 million for technology enhancements to allow more online learning, and another $5.7 million to expand career and technical education programs for high school students.

To put the size of the bond issue in perspective, it's nearly four times larger than the $25 million the city of Lawrence plans to spend building a new recreation center — described as the largest city-funded construction project in many years.

And it's two and a half times larger than the district's 1994 bond issue for $36.9 million that was used to build Free State High School.

Compared with recent bond issues by other school districts, state officials say the Lawrence district's bond proposal is on the upper end of the scale.

"It's above average because it's an above-average (size) school district," said Dale Dennis, the state deputy education commissioner for school finance.

He noted that in 2012 the Blue Valley school district in Johnson County issued $271 million in bonds. And the largest in recent memory was a $284.5 million bond issue for the Wichita school district in 2000.

Indications so far point to fairly broad public support for the Lawrence bond proposal.

A survey that the Lawrence school board commissioned last fall, before it voted to put the bond issue on the ballot, showed solid majority support for the concepts contained in the bond issue: 54 percent supported upgrading all 14 elementary schools; 58 percent favored districtwide technology improvements; 58 percent approved of expanding career and technical education; and 69 percent supported improving school security.

The Lawrence Chamber of Commerce has publicly endorsed the ballot measure. And a political action committee called Yes for Lawrence led by Democratic Rep. Paul Davis and Republican Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger reportedly raised about $15,000 for a campaign to convince voters to vote yes.

"We feel pretty good about the chances that it'll pass," Davis said. "The comments seem very positive from the people I've talked to in the community. And I know a lot of people on the campaign have been out knocking on doors and going to different events trying to promote the bond issue, and they're generally getting very positive responses from people."

The most visible opposition has come from the conservative political action group Americans for Prosperity — Kansas. Jim Mullins, an organizer for that group, said at a recent forum that he supports the career and technical education piece, but believes the district has excessive fund balances that it could use instead of asking voters for more bonding authority.

In December, the seven-member board voted unanimously to put the bond issue on the ballot. And all four of the candidates running for seats on the board say they strongly support it.

Impact on taxes

District officials and supporters of the bond issue have promoted it as a "no tax increase bond," meaning if it's approved, it will not result in a property tax increase.

Officials say that's possible because the bonds would be issued in phases over the next three years at the same time the district is retiring some older bonds. The plan would be comparable to a family buying a new car at the same time their loan on an older car is paid off, resulting in the family continuing to pay out the same amount of money for monthly car payments.

Current and projected property tax rates in the Lawrence school district with and without the proposed $92.5 million bond issue that voters will decide Tuesday, April 2.

Current and projected property tax rates in the Lawrence school district with and without the proposed $92.5 million bond issue that voters will decide Tuesday, April 2.

Others have argued that it nevertheless would constitute a tax increase because without the new bonds the taxes levied by the district for debt service payments would go down.

The district's current budget includes a tax levy of 10.624 mills in property tax for its bond and interest fund. A mill is $1 of tax for every $1,000 in assessed valuation.

In Kansas, residential property is assessed at 11.5 percent of its fair market value. So the owner of a home valued at $100,000 pays taxes on $11,500 of that value. Thus, that owner pays $11.50 for each mill of property tax levied. That translates to $122.18 for the school district's 10.624-mill bond and interest levy.

School board members concede, however, that the mill levy is sometimes influenced by factors beyond the board's control. For example, property values in the district could go up or down from one year to the next. And the district does not yet know exactly what interest rate it will have to pay on any new debt.

But board member Shannon Kimball said at a recent forum that even if the bond and interest levy were forced to increase, the board could offset that by cutting the mill levy for its "capital outlay" fund, a separate fund used to pay for routine big-ticket expenses such as roof and furnace replacements or new computers.

"We're committed to making sure that those adjustments maintain our commitment that this be a no-tax-increase bond issue," Kimball said.

Bonds instead of school closures

The public debate leading up to the bond proposal actually began around 2009 when the state of Kansas began cutting school funding in response to the economic downturn.

Enrollment projections at that time were forecasting declining numbers in some older schools in central and east Lawrence where it was felt that some buildings were already underutilized.

In 2010, the board established a community task force to make recommendations about how the district's elementary schools should be configured in the future. The final report from that group recommended consolidating six elementary schools in east and central Lawrence into three or four.

The schools involved included Sunset Hill, Hillcrest, Pinckney, Cordley, Kennedy and New York.

That report also called for issuing bonds to refurbish the three or four buildings that would remain.

Meanwhile, the district did close Wakarusa Valley School, and it closed the East Heights Early Childhood Family Center, moving the district's preschool program into Kennedy School.

The board then formed a Consolidation Working Group, made up of community members and staff mainly from those schools to come up with a specific plan for carrying out those recommendations.

In February 2012, however, that group recommended not closing any buildings and instead issuing bonds to upgrade and modernize all 14 elementary schools.

Since then, the school board has not looked back, and in December the board voted unanimously to put the $92.5 million bond proposal on the ballot.

That decision still raises questions by some in the community who say the district should not have taken closure and consolidation completely off the table.

But board member Rick Ingram, responding to one such question at last week's town hall meeting, said there was little to be gained by that idea because operating one large building does not cost substantially less than operating two smaller ones.

"The only way you get any operational savings is if you lay off teachers," Ingram said. "If you want to lay off teachers, you increase class sizes. You can get some administrative savings if you don't lay off teachers, but you're talking about a lot of high-risk kids, low-income kids, and they're going to need a whole lot more services."

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Comments

GMom05 1 year, 8 months ago

"That decision still raises questions by some in the community who say the district should not have taken closure and consolidation completely off the table. But board member Rick Ingram, responding to one such question at last week's town hall meeting, said there was little to be gained by that idea because operating one large building does not cost substantially less than operating two smaller ones." Gosh, where was Rick Ingram when Wakarusa Valley and East Heights were closed? And why is he supporting the gross increase in district capacity via New Construction, rather than reopening already existing elementary buildings? If having one large building does not cost substantially less than 2 smaller ones, why don't we save some bond money and reopen Centennial or East Heights if the growth is in the center, or Wakarusa if the growth ends up being in the west? Look, no one said you couldn't replace your portables and have your kitchens, cafeteria's, AND gyms, but all these additional Classrooms are not necessary when they've been built already.

Cauac 1 year, 8 months ago

Where was he? Not sure, but he was not on the school board. A new majority (4 members) was elected in 2011.

Richard Heckler 1 year, 8 months ago

The new majority of this BOE had nothing to do with mismanagement which took place the previous 10 years. USD 497 properties cannot afford another 10-15 years of negligence = makes zero sense.

USD 497 developed a fact flier in house and distributed for minimum cost = fiscally responsible.

It is smart to put a lot facts in the hands of the voters. The LJW cannot get the job done. No news agency can get the job done. Town Hall meetings do not last long enough to get the job done.

"Without the bond issue our taxes will go down" - Maybe ..... maybe not is my view. Certainly not very much money will be saved. The taxpayers USD 497 properties cannot be neglected any longer. The district needs to bring on all of the improvements.

If the bond is defeated there will need to be a plan B. Maybe increase the mil levy and move forward. The increase will need to be in place for a relatively short period of time but could get the job done. USD 497 cannot afford another 10-15 years of negligence = makes zero sense.

I applaud the USD BOE 497 for offering up plenty of information to the voters. Request an info flier or go pick one up.

Thank you USD 497 BOE for the going the extra mile.

1 year, 8 months ago

Um, ShePrecedes, clearly - very clearly - you have not set foot into a school building, let alone a classroom in this district. Because had you of done either of those two then you would not say, "There is no reason whatsoever that this issue cannot be postponed until a time when people have financial well-being." Because we cannot wait to prepare our students. We are lacking RIGHT now. In terms of resources, specifically technology, we have less than any district surrounding us. But you wouldn't know!

1 year, 8 months ago

Gmom5, I read your comment, " why don't we save some bond money and reopen Centennial or East Heights if the growth is in the center, or Wakarusa if the growth ends up being in the west? Look, no one said you couldn't replace your portables and have your kitchens, cafeteria's, AND gyms, but all these additional Classrooms are not necessary when they've been built already." It costs money to keep schools running. It costs more money to keep more schools running. We would not be better off REopening old buildings that are not up to par and pouring money into them. What we have decided to do, with the help of people who study these types of things, is to remodel the buildings that are currently open. It is a smart decision, you need to quit beating the dead of horse of REopening closed school.

Bigdog66046 1 year, 8 months ago

the schools are not "closed" the are re purposed. They still are open to some use, and costing us taxpayers money to maintain and operate. THIS board has failed you and your students. Just by looking at your comments about how bad our school buildings are and how far behind we are on technology. Money doesn't fix stupid. The school board hasn't been able to do a good job with what they have. But you believe they will with allot more??? I feel you are sadly mistaken.

maynardzenith 1 year, 8 months ago

The community and school board are ignoring the substantial body of educational research that clearly demonstrates buildings and resources do NOT make the difference in a student's academic achievement-teachers do. Sadly, my own children have had very few outstanding teachers. While teaching is hard and student achievement is based on multiple factors, I see little spark or passion for learning the art of teaching. I would like to see our teachers have a solid knowledge of content with the interest in finding how best to present that content. It appears that the administration and teachers have a less than friendly relationship. My guess is that teachers would like to have the opportunity to grow both professionally and monetarily. I would like to see the administration and school board spend their time and resources in figuring out how to make that happen rather than repeating the tired budget "can't do it" response. A majority of students in Lawrence have access to all the "latest" technology, which is impossible to keep up with in terms of monetary resources. I think this bond is ill-timed and I will not be voting yes.

IreneAdler84 1 year, 8 months ago

If you want to attract and keep good teachers, I bet it would help if they were able to teach in classrooms without leaky roofs, in permanent classes not portables, and in schools with good temperature regulation. Do you really think that a good teacher wants to teach in a poorly maintained schoo?

maynardzenith 1 year, 8 months ago

I AM a good teacher and have taught under a variety of poor conditions...you have missed the point; outstanding teachers can actually teach any place under any conditions. The retention issue is separate-that is why the salary and professional development piece needs to be addressed in place of money for schools that will likely be closed a bit further down the line.

IreneAdler84 1 year, 8 months ago

If you are a teacher, then you know that your salary is in no way connected to spending on facilities. Teachers are paid out of operating expenses. That pool of money is dependent on Topeka. Bond money is used for capital outlay-building projects. It simply strains credulity that all things being equal, a teacher, or any sentient human being would prefer to teach in a room with a leaky roof.

ReadingSports 1 year, 8 months ago

I have children in school in this district. See my comments in the thread about misuse of taxpayer funds to advertise the the bond issue. This is a very rich district and we spend lots of money on things we shouldn't. And I have been in the class room, obviously as a visitor. I've gone to every conference and open house. So I know my kid's teachers, and several of them know me when they see me.

This is the top performing district in the state. But part of the reason for this is that Lawrence is a wealthy district. A lot of the reason in fact. Many students have parents that have spent a great deal of time with the students in their studies, which is more important than facilities anyway. And really how hard is it to teach a math professors kid, math? (I'm not a professor, btw.) Or sports to a coach's kid? Or music to a music professor's kid? Or writing to an English professor? Of course that's all the teachers... Yeah, not so much. Don't get me wrong my kids have some great teachers. And some not so great ones. But student success is directly related to parental involvement. If you want you student to succeed be a parent. Notice I didn't say a great parent, just be a parent, that's it.

But don't make excuses, students fail for lot's of reasons, but not because the building is pretty. Or there's extra computers in the classroom. A good student, parents, and a good teacher don't need more computers. Or better buildings. There are good teachers in every building in this district. There are bad teachers and student problems in every building in this district. Is this bond issue really going to improve student success? No it's no. Let's realistically address the problems not just throw more money at it.

You would be surprised how much funds are misused. Lawrence spends a lot of time and money on things that are a waste of both.

I was initially for this bond issue, but seeing how much time the school has spent on information sessions, and talking with some teachers, I will vote against this bond issue, and I encourage everyone else to do the same.

VOTE NO!!!

msezdsit 1 year, 8 months ago

While I agree with the lte and will most certainly vote for the bond, It gnaws at me that the usual suspects will get a great big piece ( 60million plus) to add to the other money grabs they won big on that we didn't get to vote on.

Please vote YES on our CHILDREN and our neighborhoods!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

ReadingSports 1 year, 8 months ago

Oh course I'm going to vote no on the children. I don't like neighborhoods either.

I would try to "Reductio ad absurdum" your argument, but you've already done that for me.

msezdsit 1 year, 8 months ago

Truth hurts for you so go on pretending. I made no argument you did that part.

Old_Oread_Phart 1 year, 8 months ago

If small schools are the best model, as many argue, why isn't this bond committed to building small neighborhood schools in West Lawrence?

msezdsit 1 year, 8 months ago

Because it isn't committed to building schools in any neighborhood, only preserving the ones already invested in.

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