The Hays USD 489 Board of Education unanimously voted Monday evening to send a $78.5 million bond proposal to voters in the November general election, a decision that drew applause from several educators and community members.
If approved by voters Nov. 11, the bond funds would be used to construct two new buildings and renovate and expand others to address space needs and deferred maintenance issues the district has been facing for several years.
“I think the committee comes before us tonight not to ask if $78 million is the right amount for this bond, but I think they ask us if they can take it to the people of the community and let them decide,” board president Lance Bickle said, noting he is certain something needs to be done to improve facilities.
“I’ve struggled with where I stand as a board member … since I know we as board members were elected to do No. 1 what’s best for the kids, and also to be the best stewards of the district’s money that we can by operating the district in the most efficient ways possible.”
A vision committee consisting of parents, educators and community members has been working on the plan since early this year, assisted by professional consulting firms hired by the school district.
The proposal calls for constructing two new elementary schools, one of which would replace Wilson Elementary School and be at the same location, 101 E. 28th. That decision was made because the cost of making necessary renovations was almost as expensive as a new building.
A second school would be built at a new location — not yet identified — to replace O’Loughlin and Lincoln schools, which would be repurposed. O’Loughlin would house the district’s Early Childhood Connections program, Learning Center and Westside Alternative School.
Board member Paul Adams asked how parents and educators felt about having a program for young children in such near proximity to Westside, which provides mental health services as well as education for students who need additional resources.
Vision committee member Valerie Wente said that issue was discussed at length, and assured board members the programs can be housed in completely separate wings due to the layout of the O’Loughlin building. The wings could be walled off for complete division, and it could be arranged so the two different populations did not share common spaces, she said.
“And do you feel comfortable with how it’s been addressed?” Adams asked Wente, a USD 489 parent.
“Yes, I do,” Wente replied.
The Washington building on Main Street also would be re-purposed; it has housed the district’s Early Childhood Connections program only since 2016.
While many residents had expressed a desire to keep all neighborhood schools, representatives of the vision committee discussed the rationale behind the recommendation to restructure. The high costs of renovating old facilities was a significant factor, said committee member Chris Dinkel.
A district survey also showed many families aren’t necessarily sending their children to the closest school, he said, and organizers also are striving for parity across all elementary schools.
“We were looking at spending $26 to $28 million to bring Lincoln up to the same level as a $22 million, brand new construction, four-section school,” Dinkel said. “We were looking at spending major dollars on buildings that may not even have survived the scope … of the bond.”
Adams commended organizers for “being bold” in making that recommendation.
“The history in our community is we like life as it is,” he said. “What impressed me is you were willing to step outside and look at something not just different, but better. That’s my interpretation.”
The proposed construction work also calls for significant renovations and additions to Hays Middle School and Hays High School.
Class size at the elementary level also was discussed Monday. School board members have identified decreasing the number of children in each class -- particularly at the kindergarten and first-grade levels -- as a high priority.
If the sweeping construction projects are approved by voters in November, each of the three schools would offer four sections of each grade level. Most schools currently offer three sections, while Lincoln offers two. That change would allow the district to reduce class sizes, but also would require the hiring of additional teachers.
When asked about how the district could fund additional staff, superintendent John Thissen said administrators would budget for those positions as it is financially feasible. It could take several years before all of the new classrooms would be utilized, he said. Funding for the new teacher positions would not be included in the bond issue.
Board member Josh Waddell expressed support for the overall proposal, but frustration with the lack of a definite plan to hire more teachers and reduce class sizes, if the project is approved. He said that should remain a high priority, citing “changing classroom dynamics.”
“This is something I feel very passionate about, and I would like to feel better about our district’s commitment in getting us here,” Waddell said. “That is my only hiccup at this point. I think this is a much better plan than the $94 million. … I think we are getting a much larger bang for the buck.”
The larger price tag refers to an earlier — and more expensive — bond proposal that was rejected by voters in 2016. School board members and project organizers alike said they are hopeful November’s bond issue special question will face a different fate.
If approved, the bond would increase the district’s mill levy by a total of approximately 13.4 mills. Organizers have proposed shifting two of those mills to the established capital outlay budget, resulting in a net increase of 11.4 mills, or $16.43 per month on a $150,000 home. It would be a 30-year bond issue.