Where to start?
That was the prevailing question Monday night during a special meeting of the Hays USD 489 Board of Education in its first lengthy discussion of how to proceed with needed improvements in the district’s buildings after the failure of last year’s $78 million bond proposal.
The board has had a few 30-minute discussions in regular meetings since November’s election, but this was the first special meeting set aside to discuss the issue. No action was taken, other than to agree to two 20-minute executive sessions to discuss acquisition of real estate.
The board has discussed the topic in closed session in its last several meetings. Realtor Robert Readle was present in Monday’s discussions.
Much of the discussion in Monday’s open session centered on forming a long-term plan for the district’s buildings and what the public would find acceptable to get that plan started.
Board member Greg Schwartz spoke throughout the meeting in favor of creating a plan looking forward perhaps 30 years with smaller, phased bonds of seven to 10 years. The plan should remain flexible to change with enrollment needs or advances in technology, he said, but retain the same overall goals.
“Your plan is the first priority and then you figure out how you can break it into sections,” Schwartz said, with each section leading to the next.
Superintendent John Thissen said he agreed it’s a good idea, but the first step will be the most difficult hurdle.
“The phased piece makes great sense if you have the logic and the people are believing that and following that. The phase kills you if you only get the first step of it and things fall apart with the second and third,” he said.
Board members said voters would be more likely to agree to the subsequent bonds when they can actually see what their tax money will create.
What exactly the end game should be was not in total agreement, however. The board and administrators were divided on how many elementary schools are needed for Hays and how many new buildings should be built.
Thissen said he believed two new buildings in 30 years — an elementary and high school — would suffice for the district, while Schwartz said one, with extensive renovations and additions to other buildings — would do.
Board member Paul Adams suggested a new high school might be the place to start, but Thissen said that would not serve the district’s most important needs in the elementary schools.
“Our plumbing issues are more severe than what the public even knows,” Thissen said. “I don’t think you can responsibly put the high school as a project when you know how bad the facilities are in the elementaries. You gotta do something there.”
There was some general consensus an elementary school should be built first, but opinions varied on whether it should be built with having one large elementary or up to four elementary schools as the end plan.
How to approach the long-term planning also was discussed.
“I do not feel that it is really your job to be the committee group and have several more special board meetings in trying to do this,” Thissen said.
Schwartz favored the school board handling the plans on its own rather than appoint a committee.
“Who is more informed about what’s going on than the board?” he said. “At some point if you go hand this off to a group of whoever, they’re going to do what we would do.
“If we truly analyze this as we should, the amount of time we’re going to spend having a number of these meetings is what we should be spending on it anyway,” he said.
Board Vice President Mandy Fox said she thought it wouldn’t look good for the board to handle the planning on its own, favoring a separate committee.
“I don’t think we can sit back like we did the last time and be active listeners, but I also don’t think we should be the sole source of it, either,” she said.
How much money to work with also was discussed. Citing surveys and reaction from November’s election, Thissen said it was apparent the public considered a 30-year bond too long and that a tax increase of $10 to $15 for a $150,000 residential property was more desirable.
A 15-year bond at an additional $12 tax on the $150,000 property would raise almost $30 million, Thissen said. If a seven-year half-cent sales tax split with the city were factored in, that amount would rise to $38 million.
“The numbers would indicate that $29 million or $38 million would be enough to do the one piece of the project we’re talking about,” Thissen said.
Thissen said he would bring dollar amounts calculated on a 10-year bond to the board and will speak to city officials about the possibility of discussing a sales tax with the city again.