Tuesday, February 06, 2007

School Bond Thoughts

The School trustees seem to have decided to go for the May election date on the school bond. We have reviewed the Long Range Facilities Plan and the results of the Turco poll commissioned by the trustees and talked to people in SAISD administration. In an earlier Blog we mentioned some questions about the poll itself. The trustees have until March 12 to nail down final ballot language, but assuming the information I have so far is in the ballpark, I think it is time to start this discussion. About the only new info out of last night's Trutees/Task Force workshop meeting is that the Trustees feel free to make a very pricey package even more costly if they choose to build a new Crockett on new property instead of the current site.

First, for context, I supported the last bond in '96, wrote a guest column in the Standard-Times and did what I could to help pass it. I do not want the following remarks to be characterized as those of a constant, reflexively anti-tax “aginner”. I have no doubt a bond can be justified, but we need to look carefully before we bite into this particular quarter-billion dollar apple.

If that figure sounds unfamiliar, it could be because neither the poll or the Plan mentions it. True, the bond we will be asked to approve in May is estimated at $128 million, but it is phase one of three put forth by the Facilities Task Force. Here it gets a little tricky. For everything in the Long Range plan to come to pass, all three will have to be approved, one now; another roughly 2016, or about the time the current bond is paid off, for a ballpark $100 million+; and the third in about twenty years, no price available yet. Administration thinks only the first two are relevant now. Since most of the action happens in Phase I & II, let's go with that, but we are still looking at a quarter-billion before debt service cost. Another reason I am willing to limit discussion to Phases I&II for now is that these two parts are so interdependent in the Long Range Plan, if we are not going to approve both, SAISD needs to drop back and punt anyway. Note here, the Turco poll gave under 10% approval to a bond amount in excess of $200 million. Since the poll discussed the first two phases almost interchangeably, I'm sure a lot of respondents thought they were pricing both phases for $128 million.

The “central” item in Bond 1 is $90 million for a new Central High. I understand we don't have a street address yet, but could we get a clue as to where it will be within a school attendance zone or two? Among other things it might help voters decide whether the on-site athletic practice fields are a “basic need”. It is hard to picture a site for a new Central that would be further from Bobcat Stadium than is Lincoln/Lakeview, from whence parents regularly shuffle their kids back and forth.

Question 15b on the poll measures agreement with the statement, “I would rather enlarge the current high school than construct a new one.” I hold a statement that should have been polled would be, “I would rather expand Lakeview, refurbish Central, and equalize the size of our two high schools than construct a new one.” Please, please don't tell us the controlling factor in deciding to go with a $90 million item was the absolute educational necessity of having a sole 5A football team in town, although that is pretty much what question 16h states. Actually, the very phrasing of 15b is insulting to the northside, it implies that Central need not even be named, that “the current high school” defaults to Central as the one that really counts.

Implied throughout the Long Range Plan, the poll, and a collection of captioned pictures titled “What you see, what you don't”, is that buildings 40 years old are inherently inadequate to allow a proper education. Flatly stated in the Plan is that the cost of upgrading existing buildings would be 60-70% of new buildings. I question both assumptions.

I have shared the pictures, [which can be viewed here] presumably a collection of worst cases, to friends with experience in the construction trades and IT installation and upgrades. This collection of pictures shows some serious problems in ongoing maintenance, frankly many of them problems I had hoped the last bond issue would cure. As to justifying tear-down and rebuild, we were uniformly underwhelmed. A great many people in San Angelo live and work in buildings well over 40 years old, and some of us have managed to install state of the art computers without burning the place down, and ADA compliant restrooms without resorting to the wrecking ball.

Locally, a lot of individuals are contributing millions in privately donated funds to proudly transform the going-on-forty Hemphill-Wells building into a library that will be a centerpiece of downtown revitalization, one which will hold a surfeit of new IT equipment. I suspect Harvard, which still uses some of its 18th century buildings would be amused by our theory that modern education cannot take place in buildings out of the (gasp!) 60's.

Actually, if Harvard did decide to rip it out and go with new construction, at least as the most richly endowed University outside of Dubai, they could afford it. If we were rolling in oil boom cash and had all the credit cards paid off, maybe all this new construction would be defensible. Not only does that description not apply, but since the Task Force forwarded this plan, taxpayers have gone four days without showers and have been hit with a quarter billion dollar plumber's bill which isn't very negotiable. I know SAISD has no responsibility for the city's water problems, but it has a responsibility to take notice of economic reality, which in this case is that all that money comes out of the same well, the taxpayers' pocket.

I really don't want to be the Grinch that stole Christmas, but SAISD needs to quit thinking of the taxpayers as a deep-pocket Santa Claus. I think if we make an honest effort and give ourselves until November, we can come up with an adequate, affordable bond issue that will pass. We can take a lot of ornaments off this tree and still give kids a better education.

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