USD 234 Board hires architect, talks bond issue

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Aspects of a potential school bond issue were addressed during a special meeting of the USD 234 Board of Education Monday afternoon. The meeting took place at the USD 234 Administrative Building. No action was taken on a school bond issue by the board.

The board during the meeting unanimously approved Hollis and Miller Architects of Overland Park for community engagement and bond planning discussions.

"We'll go through the process of bond scoping," Susan Brown, USD 234 business manager said. "Which will allow them to come in and we'll do some community forums and have the public get involved as well as our staff."

Previously, USD 234 Superintendent Diane Gross has said the completion of a recent district-wide facilities assessment report highlighted needs in specific areas for the district. Some are urgent, according to Gross. The estimated cost to fix all civil and mechanical issues is between $5.5 and $6 million. Adding to the overall price tag, district technology needs are estimated at around $2 million.

"The past couple of meetings we've been talking about a lot of needs that we have in the district," Gross told The Tribune after the special board meeting. "We hired an architectural engineering firm to come in and do a facility needs assessment. And we know with any of the reports that come back, that there's going to be a huge cost involved."

Gross said the district does not currently have the ability to set aside a large amount of funds in order to fix all the problems outlined in the report.

"We've been approaching the board with some just very initial discussions about the feasibility (of) approaching a bond issue," Gross said. "And the fact that our board is entertaining those conservations, I think it says a lot that they know there are some huge needs -- that in order to get some assistance and be able to move forward with addressing those needs that we're probably going to have to pursue a bond issue. And I say that knowing that it's a very touchy subject. Nobody wants to see taxes go up."

Gross said whether or not a bond issue is passed, taxes will likely rise in order to keep up with the increasing needs and costs of education, and addressing all the current needs within the district. Gross has addressed those needs during board meetings in recent months. Gross said infrastructure issues are a primary concern, particularly relating to Fort School High School, Eugene Ware Elementary School, and Winfield Scott Elementary School.

"When I say infrastructure issues I'm talking about heating and cooling systems, plumbing issues. And these were the immediate needs that were identified by the facilities assessment," she said.

Gross said certain technology needs within the district can be classified as infrastructure needs.

"Increasing the bandwidth, not only that, but some of the tools that we're utilizing have outdated programs," she said. "But beyond that, even like our phone systems, just communication, safety and security. When we talk about video cameras, entryways into the building. All of those, to me, go under the area of technology, in terms of monitoring the entryways."

Documents provided by Gross to The Tribune, and discussed during the special meeting, outline specific services in which Hollis and Miller Architects "can provide to our district for bond planning and scoping." The draft document is referred to as a standard AIA contract for bond panning and scoping, and lays out a five-step process. The five-step process requires roughly eight months to complete. The five steps, each of which include sub-head categories, are: Game planning, Visioning, Exploring options, Refining options, and Adopt best plan. Each step requires a specific time frame to complete.

"Right now, as things stand, our district qualifies for 48 percent contribution state aid, for bond and interest," she said. "And if the legislature decides to put together a bill or a law that takes that away, then what happens is, our community in order to do some of the projects that are necessary in light of the bond issue for example, then that tax burden falls solely on our community. We get no help from across the state."

Gross said not being able to take advantage of the 48-percent in state aid through the bond issue could impact the entire community.

"A lot of people (are) on fixed incomes," she said. "We have a big population that are retired citizens of the community. As I said earlier, nobody wants to see our taxes go up. But at some point, we've got to find a way to fix some of the problems that we're dealing with."

Gross said she prefers passing a bond issue over potentially having to raise the mill levy. However, all options still remain on the table at this point.

"I would say, yes, definitely (on preference of bond issue over mill levy)," she said. "Because this way, we're bringing the community into that discussion. And it's not just the board and myself and the administration trying to push something onto the community. We go out and we inform people of what our needs are. 'Here's a way for us to gain access, here's what it would mean for you as an individual taxpayer in the community, here's what it means for me, here's what it means for our community.'"

Gross said there is a lot of educating that needs to happen within the community regarding the potential school bond issue.

"And most definitely it would be the bond issue as the point of attack, so to speak," she said.

Gross also said first and foremost she would like to expose not only Fort Scott but surrounding communities to the kinds of educational opportunities "that we can afford our students, and what that then in turn means for the community."

Gross has previously emphasized the importance of the One-to-One initiative (also known as One-to -One Computing). This educational initiative allows for every student and/or teacher in a school to have a laptop, iPad, or other mobile or digital device available to them, to use whenever necessary.

"I think in terms of some of the technology access, especially approaching the One-to-One initiative, I think we are behind (other area school districts) in some respects," she said. "I think our kids do great with the resources they're provided and I think our teachers do great with the resources they're provided. I always think (about) how much more we could be doing."

Gross said it has been pointed out to her that surrounding school districts which include Girard, Humboldt, Frontenac and Chanute, are all "Well beyond we are."

Gross said the district's assessed valuation combined with declining enrollment contribute to a poor tax base.

"When we have that compared to some of the surrounding districts, we are going to have a tough time competing," she said. "So we've got to do some things to try and gain some ground and put us back on a level playing field."

Although the board did not take action on a bond issue, it did discuss potential dates to hold a public vote for the issue, and a possible fast-track for the bond issue.

"The fast-track would be if we were to do a bond issue before the end of June," Brown said.

Gross said she would prefer not to rush a public vote.

"My recommendation (to the board) was that we hold off and we wait until November," Gross said.

Other agenda items:

* The board unanimously approved a golf tournament fundraiser to assist middle school and high school students with athletic and activities equipment purchases.

* The board went into executive session to discuss matters relating to employer-employee negotiations whether or not in consultation with the representative of the body or agency. The executive session lasted approximately 30 minutes, with no action taken.