On Windy Hill: Why I voted no on Lyndon’s proposed school bond issue – Osage County Online | Osage County News

On Windy Hill: Why I voted no on Lyndon’s proposed school bond issue

Next Tuesday, May 6, is an election day for patrons in USD 421 Lyndon. I think it’s important that all registered voters in the school district show up to cast a ballot in the $12.38 million, 25-year bond election.

I voted Monday in the Osage County Clerk’s office. I voted no on the bond issue, and I encourage any district patron who cares about wise use of public funds to also vote no.

As a member of the facilities focus committee and having sat through numerous school board meetings, I feel like I’ve studied this proposal as thoroughly as any patron could. My belief is it’s the wrong plan at the wrong time, and what makes it so wrong is there is not a real need for the Lyndon school district to build new schools at this time. Doing so would be a great waste of the current facilities, and a waste of all that taxpayers have already invested in the facilities.

I’ve been involved in a number of school bond issues over the years, either as an observer or a voter, and I’ve witnessed the process for coercing voters to approve bonds. Usually it starts out with a definite need, and invariably school boards tack on other projects on their wish lists. For USD 421 facilities, the only real need identified by the school board is that two portions of the buildings are old.

While the school board did present a list of reasons for a project, the reasons don’t support such a heavy 25-year burden on taxpayers. Dealing with aging facilities, safety for students, and taking advantage of state aid are reasons given by the board for demolishing parts of two usable and functional schools to build all of the district’s schools into one facility.

During one of the facilities focus committee meetings, the architect for the project said that bond issues he had worked on almost always had a “smoking gun” concern, an obvious need that should be addressed immediately and was beyond the normal maintenance budget of a school. He said although there are maintenance issues that needed to be addressed, he didn’t see a smoking gun at Lyndon schools.

And that’s because there is no smoking gun. Despite statements to the contrary by the school superintendent, school board president, and board members, there are other, less burdensome solutions to the schools’ real problems.

Repairs and renovations are needed at each of the buildings, but none warrant demolishing usable, functional classrooms.

In a 2013 report on the old portion of the high school, Emig and Associates say, “The original 1930 building and 1940 addition appear to be structurally sound and offer educational spaces that are generally acceptable. The District is not under duress to do anything to the school at this time, no immediate or emergency concerns were identified.” In all, the report recommended for consideration at least $650,000 in repairs, renovations and weatherization for the high school, including tuck pointing, insulating the attic, replacement windows, leveling the stage, and installing a new heating and air system.

A 2006 evaluation of the high school and the elementary-middle school predicts the buildings could be used for “many more years.”

That report, by consulting engineers Finney & Turnipseed, says, “As a whole, both of these structures are in fairly good condition considering their age and lack of maintenance over the years. In order to keep these structures in satisfactory serviceable condition over an extended period of time, they both require weatherproofing.

“With these weatherproofing recommendations completed and a good periodic maintenance plan initiated, these structures should provide many more years of satisfactory serviceability.”

Although school board president Knoernschild has been heard to say on more than one occasion that the elementary school will fall down and hurt someone, the engineers’ report contradicts his layman’s assessment.

Interesting to me is that the application submitted to the state school board for approval to hold a bond election states “the buildings are in need of major repairs in order to provide the necessary school programs.” Yet, Emig’s report from last year says no immediate or emergency concerns were identified.

In addition to the lack of a “smoking gun”, the schools are not experiencing any overcrowding, another reason that might justify building new classrooms. There are currently empty, unused classrooms on both sides of Sixth Street.

Another reason given for rushing this bond issue has been the current state aid offered to help pay off facilities bond projects. State law will allow us and the rest of the state’s taxpayers to foot the bill for about 42 percent of the bond payments, not including interest, which has been promoted by the school board as a good deal for taxpayers. While it sounds like a “good deal”, when is any purchase a bargain if it’s something you don’t need in the first place? Most households can’t run their finances on the idea of “I can’t afford it, but it’s such a good deal, let’s buy it anyway.”

The school board’s plan would destroy about $11 million in useable, functional classrooms and a fine auditorium to build a new $12.38 million facility (without a real auditorium), while the main reason given is the buildings are old and will require future maintenance. Noted at facilities focus committee meetings was that all buildings, new or old, require maintenance.

Ironically, engineers estimate the current buildings could still last many years with proper care and were suffering only due to lack of maintenance, but the board’s architect estimated the new proposed dome constructed buildings would likely require roof repair or renovation before the bond was paid off in 25 years.

In my opinion, this plan shows a lack of respect for the taxpayers and the hard work required to earn enough money to pay taxes and make a living. Described by the board president as the “easiest” solution to the schools’ problems, this plan is not “easy” for working taxpayers. The district’s median homeowner will have to come up with about $250 extra each year to pay this tax bill.

The same reason the school superintendent and school board pushed to pass the bond right now – the uncertainty of law and tax changes boiling at the state capital over the past few state legislative sessions – is reason enough for taxpayers to not vote an extra tax on themselves right now.

Although the law providing state aid for school facilities was changed this session, so was the state’s entire school financial situation. With Republican lawmakers admitting Thursday they didn’t do the math correctly and didn’t know what was in the bill they passed and the governor signed into law days ago, taxpayers have every reason to be scared about future property taxes.

Under Gov. Brownback’s administration, we have seen more services pushed onto counties, municipalities and school districts, requiring increased property taxes. The governor has spent lots of money on television ads to tell us that he is giving us property tax relief, but the new school finance law allows and encourages school districts to increase property taxes as a way to provide more school funding. The reality is that if the lawmakers don’t know what the law says, there is no way for taxpayers to predict what their tax burden will be next year. My hope is the voters will someday wise up and get rid of the corporate shills who have hijacked our state government. If that would happen, maybe the laws could be changed back to favor strong Kansas education.

The USD 421 school board has added its own uncertainty for taxpayers, by maxing out the local option budget in the last few years. With this board’s past behavior, patrons have no idea how much local taxes might be increased even without a bond issue. For now, I think it would be downright foolish for taxpayers to voluntarily take on an extra tax burden with this shadow of uncertainty covering all Kansas property owners.

Also not taken into consideration in the $12.38 million plan is the possibility of school consolidation that has loomed over small school districts for years. As the uncertainty of school funding continues, consolidation is a very real consideration as a way to keep from bankrupting property owners. Before proposing construction of a new school, the school board should have been investigating the consolidation possibility. Past suggestions have been that USD 456 Marais des Cygnes Valley and USD 421 would be a probable consolidation. It was asked at a public meeting and at the facilities focus committee meeting how the tax burden would be distributed if a new school was built and consolidation occurred afterward. The answer was that Lyndon school district patrons would still pay for the new building; patrons of the newly formed district would not. It also should be noted the proposed facilities plan does not add any space to prepare for possible consolidation.

As for implication that Lyndon schools are unsafe, no taxpayer wants our schools to be an unsafe environment for students, teachers or staff.  But I can’t help but feel betrayed that our elected officials and school superintendent have implemented scare tactics to push the bond issue. While we’ve seen other area schools’ bond issues driven by the same fears, plying on herd mentality to try to trigger a stampede is nothing short of deception.

I think it would be a safe bet that most USD 421 patrons hadn’t thought much about how unsafe Lyndon schools are until superintendent Spencer announced it last fall on statewide television and the World Wide Web. The eye-opening televised report revealed that Lyndon schools were a prime target for crazies bent on destruction, it is dangerous to walk across a normally quiet side street in Lyndon, and the only way Lyndon schools could be safe would be to build a new school in the middle of Sixth Street with a single entrance.

The public’s murmuring about the expense and logistics of the Sixth Street plan caused the board to backtrack on that idea. This was followed by the school board recommending that a facilities focus committee develop a recommendation. After attending three facilities focus committee meetings, I was convinced the school board and superintendent only wanted a recommendation to build a new school, not a recommendation on how to solve the schools’ real problems.

At first Spencer and Knoernschild said that one school with a single, secure entrance would be the only way to keep kids safe in Lyndon. Advice from the architect later changed that to the current proposal of one school with two main entrances and multiple other controlled access entrances – not much different than current access at the schools.

The architect informed the committee and the board that no architect could build a school that was safe from a crazed person with the intent to gain access and do harm, short of building a prison facility. This taxpayer’s interpretation: the old schools could be made as safe as new schools.

To their credit, the school board had investigated possible security renovations and found that putting locks on the elementary-middle school classrooms would cost about $40,000, but they balked at the expense. It was noted during a public meeting, however, that over the last couple of years the school board invested about $30,000 in leveling, seeding and watering the practice football field, which would be destroyed if the bond issue passes.

The hazard of crossing the street was another reason given for building a new school. It’s sad but true that sometimes people get hurt crossing streets, but as was brought up at meetings, crossing a street is an excellent life skill to learn while young and what better place to learn than at school? The superintendent and administrators described the daily street crossing as a chaotic, uncontrolled event for all but the youngest of kids, who are escorted. In this case, it seems that if a supervision problem was addressed, the safety issue would also be addressed.

Also brought up was that kids have to cross streets to get to school, but president Knoernschild made it known that his concern was focused on the danger to kids crossing the street between the two schools.

It’s hard to say the board’s concern was not genuine, but despite the dangerous street crossing, it was noted that no one had been hurt in the street since 1967. It would be awful if it happened again, but we also know there are ways the school administration and school board could make crossing the street safe – without building a new school.

At one public meeting, the board president was asked if the new safety-enhanced crosswalk, proposed as part of the city’s Safe Routes To School project, would make the school crossing safer. He said he didn’t know.

Inexpensive policy changes could also solve the problem: Simply operate the two sides of the street as stand-alone schools. School districts all over Kansas operate their high schools separately from middle and elementary schools. Why can’t Lyndon?

Given that the school board and administration have not made policy or procedure changes regarding street crossings, and show a lack of interest in the city and state-funded Safe Routes To School project, it does make me wonder whether the expressed concern about crossing the street is genuine.

Another safety issue used to push the bond proposal is the lack of tornado shelter space at the elementary-middle school. A room used as a shelter is not FEMA certified, but a hallway adjacent to east side classrooms is certified and holds about 50 people, visitors on school tours were told. Also discussed during facilities focus committee meetings was the proposed construction of a stand-alone shelter and locker room at the football stadium. At an estimated cost of $400,000 it would hold about 330 people (six square feet per person) during a storm, and serve as a locker room other times. As the school district currently holds a little over $1 million in tax dollars in its capital outlay fund and has had comparable funds on hand for some years, I wonder why a there’s still a tornado shelter problem at the elementary-middle school?

Considering that the Centers for Disease Control reports that student injuries at school are most likely to occur on playgrounds, athletic fields, and in gymnasiums, if the board was truly concerned about school safety, it would seem the bond issue should also be addressing these safety hazards.

My thinking is that if this school board and administration cannot keep students and staff safe with the buildings and funds that have been provided by taxpayers, then it’s not time for new buildings, it’s time for a new school board and administration.

The election is May 6 and all USD 421 voters will vote at the Lyndon Community Center unless they voted in advance. I encourage all district patrons to vote no and send a message to the school board to come up with a reasonable, affordable and sensible plan for solving the school district’s real problems.

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