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Studying what USD 489 really needs

After the Build F.A.S.T. debacle last school year, I would have wagered Hays USD 489 wouldn't ask its patrons to pay for any building additions for quite some time.

In typical fashion, given my lifelong penchant for losing any bet ever taken, my streak would have remained intact. All the hullabaloo about $136,000 of public money being spent to complete a new weightroom at Hays High School would seem -- in a just a few months time -- to be an argument about chump change. As it turns out, much bigger plans were in the works.

Still, even I was surprised when the school board suggested it wanted to place a bond issue on the table worth $110 million. Stunned, actually. The precise estimate was $110,480,624.

In hindsight, it should have been obvious the BOE was up to something. It had spent $6,500 to the Docking Institute for a strategic planning initiative. Then it paid HTK Architects $60,000 not only to study existing facilities but prepare a few scenarios to consider.

The board opted for the Cadillac plan. Build a brand new high school. Move the middle school to the old high school. Convert the middle school to an elementary and refurbish Roosevelt Elementary so all K-4 students would be in two schools. Repurpose Wilson Elementary as an administration center and for special education services. And then close down the Rockwell Administration Building as well as Washington, Lincoln and O'Loughlin elementary schools.

My disbelief turned to astonishment as the board appeared to have the plan on a fast-track for April's ballot.

Having recently studied the city's comprehensive plan, I recalled mention of the school buildings. Quote: "Overall, the school district's facilities appear to be in good condition."

HTK didn't have the same assessment. Its representatives kept likening the situation to throwing money at an old car that was better off being replaced. Of course, the architects stand to make a little bit of money themselves with any move the district makes.

"Now it's time to make an investment," said the senior vice president of Piper Jaffray, which just happens to be an investment bank and asset management firm.

"To hide your head in the sand and keep fixing what we've got, is not cost-effective," said board member Rich Kraemer.

With Superintendent Will Roth asserting educational efficiency not being maximized because of too many small schools, the entire board was prepared to move forward.

Until they started hearing a negative groundswell. And from more than the 30 percent of the community Kraemer doesn't believe worth spending any time convincing otherwise, since they'll vote against any size bond issue.

Even though Kraemer's take on yours truly routinely is dismissive, I don't consider myself part of that 30-percent crowd. But I haven't held back on my skepticism of this grand plan. I just can't find the answer to the question: What possibly can be gained? The district has an exceptional track record with educational achievement. This is the first community I've ever lived in where the public schools are held in as high regard as the private system. The athletic success, not counting football games against Hutchinson, is rather remarkable as well.

Unless this plan has underlying cost savings over the long haul, I couldn't see being persuaded to support it. Particularly when placed in the community context that has the county with a long list of must-have new buildings, a new convention center being pursued in the background, and an as-yet-to-be-determined slashing of funds from Topeka as the governor's wacky tax reform plan comes into focus during the next legislative session.

Such a stance didn't prevent board President Darren Schumacher and Vice President Greg Schwartz from wanting to talk to me. Or, more likely, it was that stance that prompted the three of us to sit down over coffee and discuss the district's needs. After two hours of listening and asking questions, I had not changed my position.

Apparently that happened with enough others who were perfectly happy with the education their children are receiving. The board opted to take the issue off the fast-track and put together a community committee to study the issue. I was asked to participate, to which I readily agreed. At the first meeting last week, I was asked to co-chair the group. Not so readily, I agreed to that as well.

This lucky panel of 13 is charged with looking at the entire situation, then presenting our assessment and recommendations to the board -- hopefully by the end of the school year.

It will be interesting to see what those might be. At this point, I will refrain from publicly denouncing what could be a $110 million solution in search of a problem. Judgment will be withheld until I've seen all the facts. I promise fellow district patrons I'll keep an open mind.

But I'll reiterate the obvious, just in case it wasn't obvious enough. Anybody looking for rubberstamp approval of this proposal picked the wrong guy for the job.

Patrick Lowry is editor and publisher of The Hays Daily News.

plowry@dailynews.net