The USD 489 Board of Education apparently is ready to test the waters again with a large bond issue that would refurbish the district’s aging facilities and replace where necessary.
At Monday night’s meeting, the BOE will decide whether to place a $78.5 million question on November’s general election ballot. It’s been a mere year and a half since voters rejected a $94 million plan — so it will be interesting to see if the board adequately has addressed the reasons for the 2016 “no” result.
According to a presentation that is part of this week’s agenda, those obstacles included a lack of trust with the board, a belief the last bond issue was crafted without enough input from educators and the public, and that voters did not desire new buildings nor did they want a new sales tax to help pay for it.
The plan under consideration eschews sales tax assistance in favor of a property tax increase and redirecting two mills of the district’s capital maintenance program. And while the proposal generally mimics the previous plan in terms of adding secure entryways and storm shelters, adequate gym space, expanded cafeterias, renovating the technical education space, replacing aging mechanical systems, adding a performing arts center and enough classroom space to accommodate increased enrollment, it also calls for closing two elementary schools and constructing two new elementary buildings — all in the name of “right-sizing” the educational spaces.
While we generally can support a good portion of this plan, we hope school board members take the time to “right-size” it before placing it on a ballot. This will assist in the public's perceived trust of the board.
At the top of the list of items to consider is the overall cost. While we know it’s going to take a serious amount of money to get all the district’s facilities in good shape, the vision team opted to ignore polling data suggesting voters prefer a smaller bond issue at this time. We believe board members need pay heed, or there should be no expectation of a different result.
We also find issue with closing both Lincoln and O’Loughlin elementary schools. While the Lincoln building would requires expensive renovation and additions, the student body there is unique in the district — particularly after the recent closure of Washington Elementary. The percentage of economically disadvantaged students at Lincoln, its racial and cultural diversity, and those needing extra attention to succeed is disproportionately high. Ignoring these realities might not necessarily be in the best interest of the district’s minority populations.
Not recognizing the unique educational experience offered at O’Loughlin since 1990 also strikes us as an error of omission. The environment created by teachers, staff and administrators consistently has been recognized by educators throughout the country. O’Loughlin has been honored repeatedly by the U.S. Department of Education, the Kansas State Department of Education, the governor’s office … even Redbook Magazine gave O’Loughlin its America’s Best School Award.
Simply closing the facility and blending pupils and teachers into a larger facility without any plan to retain the school’s loops and constant innovation is not in the best interest of O’Loughlin’s student body.
We also find it curious there is no location identified for the unnamed new elementary building, and we’re troubled nothing specifically is mentioned about the needs of the growing special education population.
Perhaps 489 BOE members are not simply planning to vote on the school bond proposal offered by the well-intended community vision team. The board has yet to place its imprint on the plan, and there still is time to do so. We encourage board members to consider the current plan as a good starting point, but one in need of refinement.
Without revision, the district’s $78.5 million plan will suffer the same fate as its predecessor.
Editorial by Patrick Lowry
Full disclosure: The editorial writer served on the district's previous facilities needs committee and also is an O'Loughlin parent.