Sunday, March 30, 2008

What to Look for in a School Bond

I find myself in an odd position. After chiding the SAISD Board for its glacial pace in deciding to move to a new bond after last year's first ever defeat of a bond, now that they have decided to move forward, their new advisory committee is certainly wasting no time. After a total of three, maybe four meetings, they plan to unveil the new bond to be placed on the November ballot.

There is a hard deadline of August for ballot language, and one would hope for an unveiling far enough ahead of that to take the voters' temperature and allow some amendation before going "all in" betting the hand. Perhaps the idea is to start that taking of the temperature early, may be merit in that. We do need that time, the '96 bond had to be modified from four separate issues to two to assure passage. Speaking purely to political process, I would have advised we not go with the unveiling until after the May city elections. We are looking at a hot Police Chief race. I think it would be wiser to wait until the bond was not competing with that for voter attention.

Well, it is what it is. While I have some insight from committee members, I will hold comments on the specifics until we actually get a look at the showroom floor model tomorrow.

I share some thoughts as what we as voters should look for generally in a workable bond. I stress here, I want us to come up with a bond that will sell, I admitted last time we knew the system needs money, frankly, more money than is addressed in this bond, assuming the committee does actually go with this "99 cent sale" figure. I think it is critical we do not lose a second bond, we don't want our voters to get in the habit of saying "NO". Something close to 90% of Texas school bonds pass, and a thumping defeat such as we had is passing rare, the voters sent a message, actually several messages, this bond must address if it is to pass.

First, details, lots of details. Prior to last bond, we forwarded to our Board the Midland ISD bond, which passed handily. It was clear and specific. It put classroom construction in one issue, athletics in another. It detailed things such as "School A will get 4 new classrooms, School B will get 6" and in similar detail told voters where ballfields would be built or upgraded. Clarity and transparency will be vital to a successful bond here. Our voters sent a resounding message they did not trust the system to take a large sum and "do something" with it. The very late and unclear drawings of new schools offered obviously did not reassure the customers. This bond will need to be at least as open as the last successful bond was.

One example here: during the debate over the failed bond, we were told repeatedly that it would require $50 million to bring the Central campus up to specs if we turned down the new Central. How much of this proposal will go to Central, and specifically what will it be spent on. One glaring deficiency at Central is the "two-pipe" heating and cooling system. About half the buildings on campus have independent HVAC units from the last bond, and one gym has nothing at all. Will that upgrade be a part of the Central improvements?

Honesty is also critical. The last bond was at least forthright in telling us it would be phase one of three, the later phases to be brought on as the first was getting close to paid off. We are told the advisory committee relied heavily on the Huckabee assessments of needs, as it should have. Huckabee did a lot of good work looking at physical plant needs. My opinion, and apparently the voters' also, their recommendations went too strongly for new construction, but the base assessment of problems was a pretty thorough work product.

Now subtracting the new schools, Crockett and Central, but adding back the renovations needed at existing sites, I still come up with a grand total, all three phases, somewhere on the high side of $400 million. Either the Huckabee work on which this committee relied was off by about $300 million, or this $99 million bond, if that is all they are selling, is a drastic understatement of needs. In that a school bond is comparable to a house mortgage, it would be roughly equivalent to signing an adjustable rate mortgage, and I'd hate to try to make a living selling that in today's market.

Now before anyone runs screaming into the night, that $400 million is money spread out over a 20- 30 year period. If I am lucky, I will still be above ground and sucking wind then, but it was a long-term plan.

That brings up another thing this bond should address. A good bond should sell more than bricks and mortar and ballfields. It SHOULD be bold enough to look far ahead and sell a vision, a concept that once brought to reality, parents and children can be proud of when the grandchildren of today's students are going to the schools. Superintendent Bonds, Board members, the margin of last year's defeat should inform you, but don't let it scare you. I have told you and written elsewhere repeatedly, the last bond did not fail over the amount of money, it failed for, among other things, being a vision the voters did not support.

Today's Central was sold to voters during a period of drought and hard times for West Texas, but it was sold. The vision was, and I quote, "America's first ageless, campus style high school". Had it been properly maintained, that would still be undeniable. You are doing better on the maintenence, lots of room to improve, but it seems that lesson at least was taken to heart.

What I fear on this bond is that someone decided we needed to "go cheap" just to get something approved. We didn't sell the Edsel last time, so now we have a new sales staff and we're going to try to sell'em a Yugo. Then we come back when the Yugo dies and try to sell the Cadillac we really need.

Did this advisory committee honestly put all options on the table? Voters will insist on that. Trustee Max Parker wrote a timely and thorough Viewpoint article last Thursday on the problems with the new UIL district, and the process by whch it was arrived at. Mr. Parker is quite correct, this puts too much expense on us, not only monetary, but student-athlete time from studies. I've tried it, admittedly a long time ago, but laptops or pen&paper, let's not pretend these kids are going to get a lot of school work done during long bus rides. Mr. Parker suggests we get Rep. Darby to take our concerns to the UIL legislatively. I am first in line to admire Darby's effectiveness, maybe he can pull another rabbit out of the hat. Let me suggest an option we have local control over.

What if we consider that all those kids in Lamar and southwest Angelo are going to be in high school soon enough. Instead of building an overpriced 5A school, we shift to a three 4A high school model, "vision", if you will? We're then halfway to a UIL district in the city limits. I didn't dream this up last night, this concept as been discussed for at least twenty years. Had not Grape Creek pulled its students, the pressure for it would have come to a head a few years ago, but we are back to gaining population. If SAISD treated high schools as a district resource rather than stand-alone institutions, there is no reason 3 4A high schools could not offer as many, if not more, diverse course programs as a 5A school. Voters made it clear they prefer community based elementary schools, they will accept losing economy of scale to keep kids that age close to home. High school is a different item, by that age students are starting to choose between college bound or vocational preference and San Angelo is not so large as to make transportation to the school specializing in one area or another a big problem.

I didn't throw that out as something SAISD has to do, but as an example of what we need to seriously consider as we determine the direction we will go for the next few decades. Was it honestly considered?

Unless Huckabee and I and the Board were all wrong a year ago, a stand-alone $99 million bond will not adequately address our long term needs. This is not to say that if this "99 cent sale" is the best Board can bring itself to put forward that I will vote "no". The schools do need the money and the improvements. I will be disappointed in the lack of vision and honesty, and I will still believe that when the Yugo is "dead on the road" a few years hence, the voters are going to feel twice stung and selling that Cadillac is going to be double tough.

I sincerely hope I have to correct some of this after Monday's presentation. We need a bond, but we need a bond with a vision that might outlast some of us. You didn't take my advice on election date, but please consider this; better to suck it up now, give a good shot. The voters might well surprise you what they are willing to embrace IF they think they are being honestly dealt with.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Free Money

I received an unexpected bonus check this week, and after careful consideration, decided to use it for pure indulgence, a pricey meal at a local restaraunt. The "economic stimulus" crowd of federal gov't would be proud of me, as will the eatery and the Chamber of Commerce.

We do limit ourselves to local issues, so I spare my loyal readers a symposium on Keynesian macroeconomics.

I did think it worth an alert to pass this on. My roommate is retired, Social Security income, and does not have to file tax returns, as she has no additioal reportable income. Something I heard on NPR Sirius radio, the "economic stimulus rebate" will go to last year's filers, just for an address base. Roommate owed no taxes, could have skipped filing altogether, BUT...

She went down to the local federal office, explained her situation to the helpful soul there, he filled out her 1040EZ return and she will get a Gov't check for about $300 this May! Same result for at least two other retirees we personally alerted. Now whether they will use it to pay bills or stimulate the economy is up to them, my opinion, as long as the feds have been taking their money, they are entitled to get some of it back.

We have plenty of people in my roommate's situation as a retirement city. If this circumstance applies to you, or someone you know, make sure they file for the "free money". No guilt about being welfare queeens here, anyone qualifying will have been a long-term tax payer.

Good luck; the local economy is so diverse, failure in one aspect won't kill the deal. If my job is senior supervisor of buggy-whip manufacturing, I should worry. San Angelo may not be the town to get rich in, but damned if it ai't fun

Just another helpful hint from conchoinfo.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

NAACP Chiefs Forum Last Questions Part 2

Answers to the second and last group of questions at the NAACP forum, March 1st. This is split into two videos to meet time and size restrictions.

This second clip contains answers from candidates Cunningham, Burkett, and Vasquez.

NAACP Chiefs Forum Last Questions Part 1

Answers to the second and last group of questions at the NAACP forum, March 1st. This is split into two videos to meet time and size restrictions.

This first clip contains answers from candidates Kading, Davis, and Mida.

NAACP Chiefs Forum First Questions part 2

Answers to the first group of questions at the NAACP Chief Candidates Forum, March 1st. This is split into two videos to meet time and size restrictions.

This second clip contains answers from candidates Davis, Cunningham and Burkett.

NAACP Chiefs Forum First Questions part 1

Answers to the first group of questions at the NAACP Chief Candidates Forum, March 1st. This is split into two videos to meet time and size restrictions.

This first clip contains answers from candidates Vasquez, Mida, and Kading.

NAACP Chiefs Forum Introduction

We have been furnished a DVD taken at the NAACP chiefs candidate forum held last saturday, March 1st. This is the candidates introductory remarks. Answers to questions will follow soon.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

School Board Trustee Responds

Note: This post was originally an e-mail received from Trustee Max Parker in response to last weeks article "To the Board on the Bond". With his permission, I publish it as a stand-alone article, rather than burying it as a "comment" to a week-old article. I struck the opening salutation and some personal communication from Mr. Parker to me, otherwise the body of the text is published without editorial revision. With that cleared up, I give you Mr. Parker's comments.

At no time were we expecting the new Central to have a new stadium. That was what the survey was supposed to convey--no money for a new stadium. I agree that was not clear in the survey, but the athletic facilities to be built at the proposed new campus were made clear in our presentations and literature.

Here's the deal with the field house. Most 4A and 5A high schools have athletic practice facilities on campus. Lakeview does as do the high schools in Abilene, MIdland, Lubbock, and Amarillo. So does ASU which uses our stadium on game days. All these teams can dress and shower and work out without ever leaving their campuses and only use the stadium on game days. But that is not true at Central. Football, track ( mens and womens), soccer (mens and womens), powerlifting, softball and baseball must leave campus to dress, shower, and workout daily. The students and coaches drive to the stadium area or ride a bus to do this. This is a disadvantage time wise and safety wise for our coaches and students. I know for a fact that this split between campus and workout facilities has dissuaded coaches from other cities from considering Central as a prospective coaching job.

When Stormy Kimrey approached the board about raising money for field house renovations a few years ago, his thought was primarily economic --if we had a more modern field house with four full dressing rooms, San Angelo could host more play off games, even two per day with two teams playing in the afternoon and two more waiting in the wings for a night game. But the board had to consider a field house that could be used daily by student athletes also. The board approved an architect to prepare some preliminary plans for a new field house. ( I was not on the board at this time) Since Central did not have facilities on campus for athletics, as mentioned above, the proposed new field house included dressing rooms for football, and for men's and women's track, and mens and womens soccer. It included a weight room for men and women, I think. And it included storage space for equipment, laundry rooms, training room, and offices and meeting rooms for coaches.

Two things slowed things down on the field house: 1.) Stormy's fund raising was not as fruitful as he expected as a fund raiser began for a new library and "large" contributors donated to the library before Stormy could commit them to the stadium. 2.) We proposed a bond issue for a new high school for Central. Had the new high school been built, it would have been constructed like most high schools and had practice facilities on campus and students would have been able to dress and shower and work out on campus. And the field house, then would have become like the field houses at Abilene, Lubbok, Amarillo, Midland, and Odessa ( and like other field houses in most major cities in Texas) and only been used by teams on game days. No weight rooms, offices, laundry rooms, or storage facilities would have been needed at the stadium. Now Central has to store all its football uniforms and equipment at the stadium. The athletes leave their uniforms and equipment in permanent lockers at the field house and all laundry is done at the stadium. Coaches meet, and plan, and watch film in offices at the stadium. If the bond had passed, we would have only needed four dressing rooms and showers for games days to be used by Lakeview, ASU, and Central. We would not have needed separate dressing rooms for men and women for track and soccer as there would have been places for both to dress on game days-- Just a place for the athletes to change clothes, if necessary, on game days. So the new field house would have needed less space if the bond has passed.

So, we waited to see what happened with the bond proposal. If failed, as everyone knows. This fall, the infrastructure began deteriorating more at the field house and we determined that we needed to go forward with renovations now and not wait to see what a new bond proposal might be. I hope this makes this issue more clear to you.