Teachers, parents and Hays residents gathered at Wilson Elementary School on Tuesday evening for a tour of the building, which is slated for demolition if a $78.5 million bond issue is approved by voters in November.
Some attending the event spoke in favor of approving the tax increase for significant construction and renovation projects, while many others expressed concerns about the high cost and wide scope of the proposal.
Those attending were broken into several small groups and taken on a tour of the building, with time to ask questions of school district officials along the way. The building was constructed in 1959 and is structurally sound but is facing several challenges, including small classroom sizes, district officials said.
Many classrooms are approximately 650 feet in size — well below the recommended amount of 800 square feet for young students. There are more than 20 students in most classes, and classrooms highlighted during Tuesday’s tour were crowded with desks and teaching supplies. Some rooms didn’t even have space for a teacher’s desk.
Shirley Rohleder, Hays, spoke in favor of the district’s plan to demolish the current Wilson building and construct a new elementary school, which would be in the same location. A second new elementary school also is proposed to replace O’Loughlin, which would be repurposed, and Lincoln, which also would be demolished.
“When I came to pick up my grandson, I was just shocked how little his room was and how many desks and how much stuff was in there,” Rohleder said of Wilson. “It was like you couldn’t even move around. … I think they need new grade schools.”
The building’s HVAC never has been replaced and still runs on an antiquated boiler system that cannot be shut off once it is turned on for winter. That often results in classrooms being uncomfortably warm, said Wilson Principal Anita Scheve.
Other needs include additional restrooms, a secure entrance and adequate storm shelter, which would double as classroom space. The classroom windows also cannot be opened.
While many in attendance were sympathetic to the needs, several residents expressed concern — and even frustration — with the bond proposal, which also would fund renovations to another elementary school, as well as the middle and high schools.
Glen Teel, a Hays landlord, expressed concern about the financial impact the project could have on taxpayers. The monthly impact on a $150,000 home would be $16.43, and the bond payments would continue for 30 years.
“This is an awful lot of money for a town this size,” Teel said, noting interest costs also will be significant. “I think we need to look at some other theories of maybe fixing up something or maybe just doing a few things now that we can pay for — because we’re going to pay on this 30 years.”
Several people echoed the idea of breaking down the project into something smaller to address the district’s most immediate needs — many of which exist at the elementary school level. Incoming kindergarten classes have been large during the past two years, and future predictions suggest the district will continue modest growth.
“My biggest fear is the size of this bond,” said Robert Nolan, who said he attended Tuesday’s event to learn more about the proposed projects. “In my opinion, our more definite need is at the elementary level right now.”
Others questioned if remodeling existing buildings could be a cheaper option. In the case of Wilson, the cost of renovating it to desired standards would be approximately $16 million, almost as much as the proposed $21 million new building.
Renovating Wilson would require re-configuring walls and use of inside space, and the building is constructed at a slanted angle due to “water tunnels” underneath, Scheve said. The insured value of the school building is approximately $5.9 million.
The Lincoln building is significantly older and also would be expensive to renovate. That site is not ideal for a new elementary school due to limited size and poor traffic flow, USD 489 Superintendent John Thissen said during a question-and-answer tour.
The former Kennedy Middle School building is also not a good option, he said, in part because updates would be needed to bring the facility back up to code. It also is not owned by the school district.
Many possibilities were taken into consideration in the bond proposal planning process, which was completed by an interdisciplinary committee and professional consultants over several months.
“We’re really not trying to convince you, but we can show you a lot of data that would suggest that we’re long overdue in doing something major for our education system here,” Hays High School Principal Marty Straub said.
For more on the proposed school bond issue, see Sunday’s Hays Daily News.