News Column

Southeast voters to decide bond issue

May 24, 2014

By Michael Strand, The Salina Journal, Kan.

May 24--Southeast voters to decide bond issue

By MICHAEL STRAND Salina Journal -- Saturday, May 24, 20142:00 AM

The Southeast of Saline School District has been debt-free since 1992 and has one of the lowest tax rates in the region.

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The Southeast of Saline School District has been debt-free since 1992 and has one of the lowest tax rates in the region.

Both of those would change if voters on June 3 approve a $14.9 million bond issue to fund a remodeling and expansion of the schools.

The proposal includes:

--A substantial remodeling of the high school and middle school sections of the building, increasing classroom sizes from about 650 square feet to about 900 square feet.

--Adding several secondary science classrooms, a family and consumer science classroom, a building trades classroom and an auto shop class.

--Building an office next to the front entrance as a security measure and turning the current office area at the center of the building into a commons area.

--Rebuilding the parking lot and adding graveled overflow parking.

--Replacing the running track and rebuilding the football field with an underground drip irrigation system.

--Adding bathrooms next to the elementary cafeteria, which will be accessible to people at the baseball stadium.

20-year payoff

The debt would be paid off over 20 years through an increase in property taxes -- estimated at 14.5 mills -- boosting the district's total property tax levy from 39.973 mills to 54.473 mills.

The district would pay about $7.9 million in interest over that 20 years.

"Over the years, we've added programs but haven't added space," Superintendent Rich Proffitt said.

That's led to issues such as art classes being held in the vocational-ag room, and a high school social studies teacher sharing a room with an elementary class.

In all, Proffitt said, the plan includes a net gain of eight classrooms. The school currently has seven teachers who either don't have a classroom or share a classroom with someone else.

More out-of-district

A group in opposition to the bond issue has created a website and Facebook page and sent two mailings to voters in the district.

Much of the group's concern centers on the increasing numbers of out-of-district students the district is accepting, and whether the expansion would be needed without those students.

Critics also worry that the 40,000-square-foot expansion -- which would add about 25 percent to the school's size -- would increase operating costs for such things as utilities and building maintenance, cutting into what's available for programs and teacher salaries.

"Our secret is spending on teachers," said Dwight Conley, a member of the group called Patrons for Responsible Spending.

The pay that attracts and keeps teachers is possible, Conley said, because the district keeps its overhead low. He questions whether that would still be the case after the proposed expansion.

The 2013-14 school year was the first since the school opened in 1978 that in-district enrollment dropped below 500.

Total enrollment has gradually increased, from 629 20 years ago to 744 for the 2013-14 school year. For the past 15 years or so, the number of out-of-district students has steadily risen, from 39 to 231; about a third of the students now come from out-of-district.

"It's not an issue of we don't want them here," Conley said.

This past school year, the average out-of-district student brought in about $7,100 in state funding.

That's roughly the cost of actual "instruction" as defined by the state but doesn't cover other costs, such as administration, building operation and maintenance and other costs, which push total district spending to $11,800 per student.

"There are exceptional families and kids who come here," said Justin Knopf, another member of Patrons for Responsible Spending. "They add a lot to our school and are a way to maximize efficiency and pay for all the fixed costs."

Knopf and Conley say that it makes sense to allow more out-of-district students to maintain enrollment and make the best use of the existing facility. However, they say the expansion could lead to even more out-of-district students and drive up those fixed costs.

More students?

Part of the plan is to have space for three classes at each elementary grade level, with a maximum of 20 students per class.

"That's a great idea," Conley said. "But if you have 14 or 15 in a class, you might feel like you have to fill them" with out-of-district students.

Proffitt says that's not what he and the school board are planning.

"We don't want to grow, but maintain our population so we can maintain our class sizes and programs," he said. "We're just expanding to fill our current needs."

As a rule of thumb, school buildings cost about 85 cents a square foot in annual heating and cooling costs; using that figure, the expansion would add about $34,000 a year to the school's utility bill.

Increasing efficiency

Proffitt says the expansion will increase operating costs, but notes that part of the project is increasing the building's energy efficiency; the current janitorial staff can handle the increased square footage without an increase in people or hours.

Conley and Knopf doubt there's much more energy efficiency to be gained, since the school worked several years ago with Philips Lighting and Trane to upgrade lighting and heating and cooling systems.

They also worry the supply of out-of-district students could dry up in the future, leaving the district with a bigger facility than it needs.

"The Legislature could decide the money goes to the home district, not where the student goes," Knopf said. "Or gas could go to $8 a gallon, and people decide they can't afford to bring their kids out here. A lot can happen in 20 years."

Smaller expansion

Opponents say they'd prefer a smaller expansion, including a few new science classrooms, and moving the office to the front entrance. They say that if the current bond issue is defeated, they hope the board will return to voters with a scaled-back plan.

Proffitt says if that happens, the district would miss out on some funding from the state; the Legislature recently rescinded its "new facility" weighting for districts for any new bond-issue projects after July 1.

Proffitt said he didn't want to hazard a guess how much money the new facility funding would mean for the district, but that it could be used to buy furniture and equipment to help outfit the new classrooms.

-- Reporter Mike Strand can be reached at 822-1418 or by email at mstrand@salina.com.

For more information:

--School district's information about bond issue: http://www.usd306.k12.ks.us/Page/657

--Website of opponents: http://www.usd306bond.org/

___

(c)2014 The Salina Journal (Salina, Kan.)

Visit The Salina Journal (Salina, Kan.) at www.saljournal.com

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Source: Salina Journal (KS)


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