The Hays USD 489 school board talked about bringing its discussions about long-term facilities planning and future bonds into sharper focus at its regular meeting Monday night.
It was the fourth such discussion — including a special meeting on the topic — the board has had on the district’s future needs since the November elections, when a $78.5 million bond proposal was voted down. A $94 million proposal was voted down in June 2016.
Board members spent a large part of the 40-minute discussion weighing the value of bringing past consultants into a future meeting to review reasons why the bond failed and what steps to take for future needs.
Those consultants include the Vision Team — the local volunteers who helped shape last year’s proposal — as well as the architectural and construction management firms, DLR Group and Nabholz Construction.
Several board members thought hearing from them would be beneficial, but board member Greg Schwartz questioned how visiting with the firms could help because the information they would present is already available.
Board member Paul Adams said he has had the opportunity to visit three other school districts that also recently dealt with bond issues.
“What they shared and talked about is the architects and construction manager bring value to their ideas,” he said.
That input would be valuable because the board needs to consider plans that will affect the district for many years, he said, not just immediate needs.
“They would help us be aware of what we may also need to consider in designing the buildings to be appropriate for the next 20 or 30 years,” he said.
“After seeing what is being done and how it has impacted the learning environment and student learning, we’re way behind,” said Adams, who is dean of the Fort Hays State University College of Education. “We’re still teaching boxes in boxes and I think they bring in the exterior view that could help us out.”
Board Vice President Mandy Fox and board member Luke Oborny were in agreement the firms and Vision Team could provide good feedback.
Oborny suggested if a new committee of local volunteers is formed, it should meet with the board on a regular basis to provide updates rather than working on its own and presenting a final plan, as was done with the last bond proposal.
Getting regular updates would help the board be more involved in the planning of a new proposal, he said.
Schwartz said, without hard data, however, bringing in the consultants would just be adding to the number of opinions the board must sort through.
“Everybody’s got an opinion why it failed, but how many of those are based on any data we can rely on?” he said.
He suggested the board conduct an operational cost analysis, examining the costs of operating one large elementary school versus multiple schools, for example. With two bond proposals in recent years, that information should all be averrable in-house, he said.
“If you get to a number of buildings, then the next step is where are they going to be, are they going to be new or are they going to be repurposed? Then you can start looking at those, and that’s where DLR and construction management can help us as well,” Schwartz said.
Adams said he would still like to bring the firms before the board early as part of the fact-finding process, which prompted some back-and-forth discussion between him and Schwartz.
“I’m not certain what questions you would ask them tonight or in two weeks. What would they give us that would help make those decisions other than their opinions?” Schwartz asked.
Adams responded they could provide information on the election process. He said he also was interested in learning from them about the economy of scale — how construction costs would change if plans for new or repurposed buildings are spread out over 30 years, for example.
“I think some of those questions would come out at that point. I’d like to get that information,” Adams said.
Adams acknowleged much of that information is available in-house, but he’d like to hear from the firms that put those numbers together.
Schwartz pointed out when the district decided to close Washington and Munjor elementary schools, they used in-house information.
He then steered the conversation in a different direction. He pointed out that so far, the board’s discussions about future needs have been free-form, with no structure.
“If you don’t have an agenda and we’re just talking for the sake of talking, we’ll fill as long as people want to go. We’ll go to midnight and we could leave that, and still have no clear picture of where we’re headed,” he said.
Superintendent John Thissen said the free-form discussion is part of the process, but acknowledged it’s not fast.
“We’re still trying to gather information to move ahead. That’s what we’re stumbling on is what is that best plan,” he said.
“The process is getting to something more important than the end result. There is some benefit of having the open discussion in saying which direction we want to go with this,” he said.
He added if there had been agendas for the discussions this early, the process of new a bond might look orchestrated to some people.
Thissen said it would be possible to put together in a couple weeks the cost analysis Schwartz would like to see.
Sophia Young, who was elected to the board in November’s election, helped bring more focus to the conversation by airing a frustration she’s had with the conversations so far.
“We say the topic is long-range facility plans, and I see how the bond fits into that, but I … think the conversation gets mushed maybe,” she said.
“I don’t know if we’re talking one single bond or if we are talking about a long-range plan in this. And then back to the volunteer committees, that’s where I get lost. Are they wanting to do a bond, or they volunteering to help with the long-range facility plan?” she said.
“My mind says we need to have a long-range plan of what we see with all the buildings in the district before we really go 100 percent on one little bond,” she said.
That kind of plan would have to include not just future bond proposals, she said, but also facilities needs the district can pay for without a bond. She said she believed that was what was missing from the previous bond proposals.
Board president Lance Bickle, Schwartz, Adams and Mike Walker expressed agreement. Walker was a member of the Vision Team in last year’s proposal.
“Our idea was we were planning for at least 30 years in the future, and we were trying to do it all at once, which was a mistake,” he said.
“I agree with you,” he said to Young. “I think we should come up with a plan overall. I think DLR can probably help us.”
“We’ve talked a lot about the long-term planning and that, but we haven’t nailed anything down as far as that direction yet,” Bickle said.
The board ended the discussion without taking any action.