There’s one thing John Thissen can’t get away from when talking with people about the proposed $78.5 million bond by Hays USD 489.
It all comes down to the increase in taxes, and voters will have the final say on the proposal during Tuesday’s general election.
“The main issue, any way you look at the negativity of it, is the increase in taxes,” the superintendent of USD 489 said. “The idea of an increase of $16.43 is very troubling to a lot of individuals for a house that is $150,000. That’s understandable. That’s always the case in any community whenever there is a project being considered.”
But Thissen thoroughly believes this proposal is a better fit than a $94 million bond that was shot down by voters earlier.
“Hays has been very kind,” Thissen said. “Even if they’ve been opposed to it, I’m getting questions that are solid questions as just to understanding the plan better. I do get those individuals that end up saying just bluntly, ‘I can’t support this because I don’t want my taxes to go up.’ That’s a statement that there’s no argument there. I don’t view that as being ugly. It’s just a matter of how it is. I would say the plus is most of the negativity that has come has to do with the finance and not the plan.
“The last bond election, even though I wasn’t here at that time and came in just after it, I understood there was a lot of negativity that came from the plan itself. In this particular place, I’d say not so much. I’d say that’s positive. To me, that would be an indicator that the public views it as a better plan than the last one.”
The current plan would be district-wide, and including building two new elementary schools to replace O’Loughlin and Wilson. Wilson would be demolished, while O’Loughlin would transition into Early Childhood Connections and Westside Alternative School.
The other big items would include an auditorium at Hays High School, as well as auxiliary gyms at Roosevelt Elementary and Hays Middle School. HMS also would see an expanded cafeteria and kitchen renovation, and additional classrooms would be built at Roosevelt.
Lincoln would be repurposed or demolished, and the Munjor facility would be relinquished.
One of the new elementary schools would be built on land near Wilson, while the district still is waiting to decide on where the second elementary school would be built.
“The issue with Wilson, it really was the last hour of working on the plan,” Thissen said. “For a building that’s insured at $5.9 million and putting over $15 million for renovations and additions, 73 percent of what new would be didn’t make sense. In the last hour or two of working on it, the decision was to just build a new building behind it. It is 60-some years old. It’s not just a matter of saying that’s old. It’s also a matter of saying that if anyone has ever been in that building, they know why there’s so much renovation planned for it. The classrooms are small for that building, the smallest in our district. Trying to make them the same size … was just massive renovation. That’s where the over $15 million came from. It just wasn’t the addition of some classrooms and a tornado shelter, but it was the massive renovation that would occur to make it what we want.
“There was a great desire if we were going to be more efficient with our elementaries, and the focus point was on the elementaries and not secondary, there needed to be equity in each building. Equity was size of classrooms, it was a matter of also the facilities such as gymnasiums, food service, cafeteria — trying to consider those spaces so it’s as equal between all three buildings as it can be. The only way to do that, well, if you have a new building, that takes care of that. You have the renovation at Roosevelt. … The biggest issue I’m hearing is where do you put a new elementary. I hear from the public there’s great desire for something on the west end of town. I understand that rationale. I do. But because the money that is need to negotiate or arrange it is within the bond, we can’t really do that work until it would pass. November or December would be fast and furious work to see if someone has land that would be suitable, and if they’d be willing to sell it at a reasonable price. There is money within the $78.5 million to do that, but it’s easy to fall back and say, ‘If there’s nobody that will sell land or nobody that will sell land for less than five times what it’s worth, then we do have land at the high school.’ And an elementary can be built there. I know a lot of people might be hinging on that we are going to be putting it by the high school. No. Our plan is not to put it by the high school. That’s kind of our last resort plan. Our plan would be to look elsewhere, but we also know that’s not a given. It depends on other factors.”
Flyers from the district sent out to Hays residents say the total estimated Hays community economic impact generated by the projects would be $189 million. Several in the community have said that isn’t accurate, though, and they have voiced their displeasure with the proposal.
Many also are not happy with the interest that would be paid on the 30-year bond. In total, the original bond amount and interest would nearly double the amount.
Dustin Avey, managing director of public finance investment banking at Piper Jaffray, said that number isn’t different than a family purchasing a house with a mortgage for 30 years.
“If you look at the interest rate, it’s no different than mortgaging a house over 30 years,” he said. “It would be about $154 million in total.”
Avey also said interest rates are still relatively low, meaning a failed bond now and a bond passed in the future could be higher to fill the district’s needs.
“I think one key part is the interest rates and what happens if they go up,” he said, noting even 0.1 higher interest rate could result in several hundreds of thousands of dollars of added interest.
“I think the simplicity of it is the value of the dollar,” Avey added. “A dollar today buys more than what it will 10 years down the road. … If the school sees a need … it’s better to see and finance the projects today than 10 years down the road.”
In a survey done for the district, the majority of respondents said they would be willing to pay an additional $10 per month toward a bond proposal. Thissen said the Vision Team used that amount, and a bit higher amount supported by a good percentage of respondents, to base the current proposal off of.
“The other large percent was less than $20,” he said. “The way they tried to calculate that was it was … the majority of the people felt they could support somewhere between $10 and $20. I agree, probably closer to $10 than closer to $20. But from the standpoint of just how the projects came together and from the money, they were trying to keep it under $15 — at $14.99. Again, along with that 30-year bond was that reaching out and trying to grab those other couple projects at the high school and the middle school to make it work.”
The added money, Thissen said, allows the district to make renovations and additions at the middle school and high school — something that probably would not be possible with a smaller bond.
The addition of classrooms also helps the district potentially hire new teachers to make class sizes smaller. That money to pay for additional salaries would come from savings in efficiencies, Thissen said.
“This plan allows us to walk away from three buildings,” the superintendent said. “We don’t have the operational cost for three buildings. An estimate that was given to us by the construction manager at risk and the architectural firm is they think a very real number is $300,000 a year could be saved in just operational costs. That can end up being heating and air, lighting, just all the energy part. It can be employees. The efficiency that can come from it can take care of a good number of those eight new teachers to fill those positions.”
A failed bond this time would send the district back to the drawing board once again.
“If it wouldn’t pass, then basically we’d go back to the table really immediately,” Thissen said. “I don’t think it would change the overall priority. The priority was the elementaries, and they would continue to be the priority. In all likelihood, we’d have to give up the secondary projects. You could probably do the elementaries for $50-some million, and that makes sense some. You’d be going from a $94 million to $78.5 to a $50-some, and we’d maybe be able to get that passed. That would take care of the elementaries. The secondaries would then be in a holding pattern still. Maybe another bond election 15 years from now. Our rationale, the team’s rationale, is trying to do that at this point because of the increase in construction costs 4 percent a year went for 15 years, that would be a lot higher. And the interest rate is not all-time low like last summer, but it is still below 4. It is low. There is the belief that financially … the likelihood of even paying 30 years could be paying less money in the long run that having two different bonds.”
Thissen said demographics show the city growing in the future, especially as smaller towns in northwest Kansas lose population. He believes the plan puts USD 489 in a good position for many years to come.
“The team that worked on this tried to identify the greatest need, and it was the elementary,” Thissen said. “So they really were trying to create a plan for the elementaries that would go on for decades, not just a matter of years, but decades. They were not trying to ignore the middle school and high school, and that’s why in the end, they tried to pull some of those projects in — not all of them. They are not getting everything they wanted, but enough that it did change the number to be the $78.5 million. That’s why the tax dollars were a bit higher at $16.43 and why it’s a 30-year bond. But the exciting part of it is it was designed to look to the future instead of designed to catch up from the past. I think the $94 million project was more of a catchup from the past to get to the present. This design is one that, from the beginning, is trying to work for something that is a futuristic plan.”