USD 259 Raises its Own Raise

Fresh on the heals of raising, without a public vote, its millage levy, the board of USD 259 is now going to float a bond issue.

Wichita school upgrades issue back on agenda (Wichita Eagle, August 24), gives some details:

If school board members vote to reactivate the 80-member facilities master plan committee [an 80-person committee?-ed.], the group will meet regularly this fall in hopes of presenting an updated plan and price tag to the board by December. It will be led by representatives of Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey, the architectural firm that coordinated the 2000 bond issue.

The committee ranked the district’s building priorities in broad categories in spring 2006. For elementary schools, the group decided that reduced class size, separate elementary lunch rooms and multipurpose rooms, and enhanced libraries were the top needs.

For middle and high schools, the top needs were to upgrade athletic and fine arts facilities, and replace inefficient single-pane windows.

Speaking of the bond issue in 2000–not scheduled to be repaid for another 12 years:

Items pared from the district’s initial wish list — which totaled more than $450 million — included high school tracks, pools, auditoriums, libraries, storm shelters, multipurpose rooms and single-pane window replacements.

So what’s driving the call for cash? Not maintenance, but a permanent increase in operating costs:

Several recent developments affect the district’s plans and priorities, said Martin Libhart, chief operations officer: a Supreme Court decision that may end mandated busing for desegregation; changes in state funding that reduced class sizes; and the move to all-day kindergarten districtwide.

“If you add dozens and dozens of teachers to reduce class sizes, they need classrooms,” Libhart said. Similarly, all-day kindergarten has left some elementary schools scrambling for space, he said.

A sidebar to the article lists some items from the wish list of a 2006 survey:

Elementary schools:
Reduce class sizes

Separate lunch and multipurpose rooms

Libraries

Special programs, including classes for those who speak English as a second language

Replacement of single-pane windows

General building upgrades

Safety issues, such as bus loading areas

Additional safe rooms and storm shelters

Additional infrastructure upgrades and asbestos removal

New schools in the northeast and southeast quadrants

Middle and high schools:
Upgrade athletic facilities

Upgrade fine arts facilities

Reduce class size

Window replacement

General building upgrades

Special program needs

Libraries

Additional infrastructure upgrade and asbestos removal

Administrative support services

Additional safe rooms and storm shelters

In an editorial, Wichita Eagle is cautious. In an August 27 editorial titled “Wichita school bond will be tough sell,” it reminds us that voters approved a bond worth $285 million just 7 years ago. That money went to buying air conditioning and eliminating the need for portable classrooms. (Portable classrooms? Our 10th-grade English class was in one of those. The facilities were not superb, but the teacher was, and we received a fine education. Perhaps new facilities are overrated.)

The board, it appears, took an incremental approach:

But a number of items were left off the bond project list. Those needs are still there, say district officials and parents involved in schools.

In elementary schools, top priorities include reducing class size, enhancing libraries and having separate lunchrooms and multipurpose rooms.

In secondary schools, many fine arts and athletic facilities are deteriorating and inadequate.

For example, the tennis courts at Southeast, East, Heights, West and North high schools are all dilapidated to the point that they can’t be used for tournaments, according to a 2006 building survey. Several school tracks are still cinder surfaced. Many school auditoriums have old and possibly dangerous electrical systems. And so on.

It looks like a laundry list, doesn’t it? Some items are obviously more important than others. “Dangerous electrical systems” may be a place to start. If this means that children are at risk of being electrocuted, why weren’t other spending priorities pushed down the list until that was taken care of?

It’s hard to know what to make of the entire list. Reducing class size? The mantra of the education establishment–let us be less productive and let us be responsible for less while spending more–sounds plausible, but achieving any sort of gains in student achievement requires substantial sizes in reduction, far beyond what most districts contemplate.

The Eagle editorial points out that money doesn’t grow on trees, and public needs must compete with each other for attention:

Still, this comes at a particularly tight time: Sedgwick County commissioners last year approved a 2.55 mill property tax hike to help pay for the new Jabara aviation training center, an expanded jail and other commitments. And the Wichita school board recently approved a 2-mill property tax hike. City spending is increasing, too.

Opponents of a new bond issue point to these and other taxpayer burdens and say “enough.”

The editorial notes the need for setting priorities:

If the school board decides a new bond issue can’t be avoided, they’ll need to make their case.

The public will want to know: Which are serious and pressing needs as opposed to wishes?

As in 2000, the school district isn’t likely to get everything it wants.

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