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.

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