USD 257 voters reject school bond issue proposal

Decision comes after weeks of public forums and sometimes heated debate

Jefferson+Elementary+staff+member+Laura+Caillouet-Weiner+explains+her+position+on+an+issue+during+the+Oct.+7+community+forum.

Jefferson Elementary staff member Laura Caillouet-Weiner explains her position on an issue during the Oct. 7 community forum.

By Valaree Burtnett, Ryan Eyster, Brynna Hollins & Madison Luken | Staff Writers

The long-running Iola school bond issue debate has come to a conclusion with voters saying no to spending $50 million on new schools. Iola residents on Tuesday rejected the ballot question 1,812 to 1,128 on a day of high voter turnout.

According to county election records, 53 percent of registered voters showed up to cast their votes on Nov. 4. In the end, about 62 percent of those who came to the polls said no to the schools project.

This leaves the citizens of Iola USD 257 and students across the district wondering what is next.

“The say-yes campaign had a message about how to deliver more inefficiencies to the district and more technology to the district for less money,” IHS Principal Stacey Fager said the day after the election. “We will move forward to see how we can best accommodate for the need of the district and the students here at IHS.”

 

Editor’s Note: The following in-depth report on the bond issue was published online on October 28 before election day.

Long-Running Debate

Over the course of the summer and fall, debate grew over whether the district needs a new high school and elementary school.

There was much discussion about several components of the $50 million bond issue proposal. Debate centered on such things as location, overall cost and what will be done with the district’s four current school buildings. In the end, voters will ultimately decide on Nov. 4 whether to move forward with the new construction at a time when state bond aid is available to cover 51 percent of the project’s cost.

The construction plan, which would put the new school complex along Oregon Road between Kentucky and State streets, calls for a campus anchored with two new buildings. The existing middle school would undergo $1 million in renovations to house seventh and eighth grades (sixth would move to the new elementary building), and the master plan calls for construction of a future middle school on the new site.

The location has been a concern for some residents since the site is about 3 miles north of where the high school is now. The elementary building and the high school would be separated by the Prairie Spirit walking trail, which runs from Humboldt to Ottawa. District officials point out, however, that bus stops will be set up throughout the city and will be tended by a USD 257 employee to ensure the safety of children needing transportation. The stops will be set up so that no child will have to walk more than two blocks to get to one, officials say.

“I think it’s a great location,” said Jen Taylor, who is chairwoman of the Yes For Iola Kids Yes organization. “Nowhere else in town had enough land to provide for a campus of this size. And with a new hospital and other new buildings, Iola is already starting to grow in that direction.”

Another concern has been the cost of the project and how it will affect taxpayers in Iola. The total cost of the bond issue is $50 million, which is about $1.8 million under the overall assessed property valuation within the district for the 2013-2014 year, the most recent data available, according to Kansas Department of Education records. The Chanute school district had a similar bond issue vote during the 2005-06 school year. Property in that district at the time had an assessed valuation of $53.5 million, and the district took out a bond for $42.7 million bond, or about 80 percent of that value.

Under the plan, the actual school property tax rate increase in Iola USD 257 would be 9.19 mills after the district’s portion of the proposed half-cent city sales tax helps cover 4.47 mills. However, since the state of Kansas will fund 51 percent of the project and interest on the bond, local taxpayers will be responsible for  $24.5 million of the $50 million. For the average homeowner in Iola, this translates an extra $6.60 a month, the increase for a taxpayer with a house valued at $75,000. The extra city sales tax helps spread the project’s cost over the community as a whole, and not just property owners.

“If the new schools are built, you should expect that for every 100 dollars you spend at Walmart, you will be spending an extra 50 cents,” Superintendent Jack Koehn noted at the third community forum Oct. 7.

IHS staff member Amanda Thompson expresses her personal opinion.
IHS teacher Amanda Thompson expresses her personal opinion during a public form in October.

Some residents of Iola have argued that renovating existing schools would be more beneficial to the district. District officials respond that it is simply cheaper to build new. The estimated cost of remodeling would be $56 million, or $6 million more than new construction. In addition, all the renovations needed would not be able to be done in the course of one summer, and classes would have to be conducted in temporary mobile trailers. According to district estimates, these structures would need to be rented for each class, and each trailer would cost about $50,000. This would add an additional cost of $750,000 to $800,000 per school to the renovation price tag, as each school would need 15 to 17 trailers to operate.

Driving Forces

A large factor in the latest push for new buildings has been rising maintenance costs for aging schools. In the past seven years, USD 257 has spent $3 million on maintenance, district officials say.

Advocates say the money that new schools would save on maintenance could be put toward better funding of education to provide better technology and education resources for Iola students. Such projects could include providing laptops or tablets for students, updating resources for teachers and updating chemistry labs, among other things.

The bond issue is “more about school improvement,” Koehn said. The new buildings would save the district about $650,000 in maintenance each year, including an estimated $120,000 annually in utility bills alone. “This is money we’re throwing at old buildings right now that we could be using for the classrooms,” he said.

Most of Iola High School is 98 years old, Jefferson and Lincoln elementary schools are 75 years old, and McKinley is 63.

The safety of students has also come into question during the debate. Some residents have wondered how a new school would improve this matter.

“Rather than retrofitting equipment to an older building, we would create new construction with safety built in,” said Jack Stanley, principal of Iola Middle School.

At the high school, student safety while walking across the street to the cafeteria, the science building and the agriculture/construction buildings, as well as walking two block across a major highway to get to the Bowlus Fine Arts Center, has been at the top of list of major safety concerns for awhile. Security issues also have surfaced in light of school shootings in the past few years. The front doors of most of the schools in USD 257 are not are not visible from the main office, which is a big concern for some in the community.

“Although there are new buzz-in systems, visitors can come right into the building without having to directly go through the office,” Taylor said. “Almost any visitors can have access to where students are.”

Modern school buildings are designed for visitors to pass through a main office, where they will be checked in. “Ideally, the office should be able to see the front door,” said Don Snavely, vice president of the USD 257 Board of Education.

District officials also worry about the current buildings’ noncompliance with Americans with Disabilities Act standards. State and commercial buildings must be up to federal accessibility codes, they note. Additionally, tornado shelters are part of the building plans and would be provided at the new schools.

USD 257 Superintendent Jack Koehn a question about the proposal new schools.
USD 257 Superintendent Jack Koehn answers a question about the proposed new schools.

If new schools are built, the district will try to sell the old school buildings, but if new owners are not found, the bond budget includes funding to demolish the buildings and retain playground equipment. In the unfortunate circumstance that the high school would not find a new owner, officials said, the commons area and gym will be saved and turned into a community building.

Meanwhile, some residents are also concerned that new schools would lead to the abandonment of the Bowlus. But district officials said such impressions are inaccurate.

“We have no intentions on violating the contents of the will,” school board President Tony Leavitt said. District officials have discussed plans to refocus the Bowlus to offer half-day classes for juniors and seniors as a fine arts magnet school. Fields of study would include more advanced and hands-on classes, and even internships, in such areas as graphic arts, recording studio, performing arts, set design, and other fine art projects that are not yet offered at this time. The traditional art, speech and music classes that are now currently held at the Bowlus would move to the new campus.

Alternative placement services, such as those offered at Crossroads Learning Center, are currently under discussion by the board members.

Student Perspectives

Some Iola High School seniors are old enough to vote on the bond issue themselves. For registered voters age 18 and up, the polling locations will be the North Community Building in Iola, Gas City Hall and LaHarpe Senior Center.

Many students have expressed an interest in the issue in recent weeks. Seniors Emma Piazza and Jo Lohman decided to conduct an informal survey to analyze the opinion of IHS students about building new schools. According to their informal poll of IHS peers, 64 percent of the 81 students surveyed said they were in favor of the bond issue, 22 percent were against and 14 percent said they were indifferent.

“We know that for the elections coming up, the majority of the students in the high school can’t vote,” Piazza said, “but we are the ones who know the most about the schools, and we just want the students to be heard.”