Thursday, April 03, 2008

New Bond; A Qualified Winner

Before the new school bond was unveiled Monday evening, I posted here some things voters should look for in a new bond, knowing that something was to be presented Monday night. The early hints had the bond total at $99 million, the origin of my reference to it as a "99-cent sale".

Many of the things I asked voters to look for were indeed present. The only surprise was a Proposition 2 asking for $30 million above that to build a new Central on the present site. I will come back to that Prop later.

As to the foretold $99 million bond, Proposition 1 as now styled, I find few faults with it. It is specific, possibly overly specific, but in contrast with last May's proposal, a huge improvement, and I can say now, I will support it. There is some needed new construction, but rather than the "tear it down and build new" focus of the last bond, this bond looks to maintain and improve on existing schools at existing sites.

The very first item contrasts 180 degrees from the failed issue. It proposes $5.28 million to expand Holiman. A year ago, Holiman and San Jacinto were to be closed and consolidated with Bradford. Coincidentally, the same SAISD meeting announced that Holiman had received recognition for educational excellence limited to 146 schools, not systems, but schools, statewide, and Holiman was a school the last bond would have closed.

San Jacinto (my attendance area school) will receive $6.4 million in upgrades, with $1 million going to new construction to replace "portable" classrooms. Hey, that's OK, call them "trailers", a lot of hard working parents and kids on this side of town still live in "trailers", we're almost perversely proud of being " trailer trash". Bradford, without the consolidation will still get $5.3 million in improvements with a new cafeteria and classrooms. Crockett, instead of being moved to an industrial park where nobody lives, will remain in its neighborhood, and get $8 million in improvements.

This tells me the facilities committe listened to parents and recognized we want our kids going to neighborhood schools. If we sacrifice some economy of scale, so be it. The population in the Lamar area is large enough that a 600+ student size is still "neighborhood", but regardless, we want youngsters to be going to school close to home, and we'll pay the differential. Glenmore, Reagan, Goliad, Santa Rita, all get similar improvements, similarly detailed. Lee middle school, it's in there, in detail.

This bond tells us transparently how much money will be spent on each campus and for what. I have to say, I've been over it several times, I do not find any project our schools don't absolutely need. If anything it is over-specific, might nudge the contractors' bids high. I mean, well, take Santa Rita, scheduled for $6,430,696 in updates. Are we that sure the correct figure might not be $6,430,692? Honestly, in projections such as this with construction costs inflating as I speak, only the first two digits of any figure are significant.

In others details, Lee middle school will see $13 million and Lakeview, the newest campus since the fire rebuild, gets about $2 million, very neatly replacing the same sum which was "diverted" from the insurance check after the fire.

One thing I advised voters to look for was "vision", a long term plan that would leave the children of today's students proud to attend the schools we build or renovate today. This brings in Proposition 2, $30 million which in addition to the $39 million in Prop 1, would rebuild Central as a single building "box" school at the present location.

Trustee Cookie Roberts was not alone in questioning this unanticipated Prop 2. This is crunch time for the future of secondary education in San Angelo. I mentioned Max Parker's "Viewpoints" article on the difficulties imposed on us by UIL district "redistricting" . The idea of SAISD moving toward a three 4A high school system has been kicking around for at least twenty years. The population is moving southwest, and shows no sign of changing, exception to Holiman, which is growing. If we were to go to a three 4A design, we would be halfway to a UIL district in the city limits. As Roberts pointed out, a third high school would increase the opportunity for students to engage in extra-curricular programs, especially sports.

Dr. May stated that, "I don't think there is a single committee member on the advisory board that wouldn't like to have three 4A high schools. It was a level of affordability, we didn't feel we could go there." Here is where the "Vision" comes in. If all the committee members, like it, why not give the voters a chance to speak? I have advised polling on the bond since the defeat of the last bond.

Now I sense, from taking comments over the years, this may be an area where, like smaller elementary schools, voters may be willing to forego big-box efficiency in favor of three high schools placed where the students live. I do not know this, but neither does the committee or the SAISD Board until we have some legitimate public opinion survey. Saints preserve us, not another push-poll such as failed us so badly last time, but a 5-600 respondent demographically diverse honest poll. In the context of a $130 million bond, low 5 figures for a good poll is cheap. As it stands, both SAISD and I are guessing as to voter preference.

I will not revisit arguements "fer or agin" here, but I think that polling is crucial to selling this bond. We have seen last May what happens when we try to sell voters a product they don't like.

From the Sunday post, "What to look for in a Bond", I suggested it might have been wiser to hold off the unveiling until after the HOT poice chief race. I have been making a nuisance of myself at work, the watering holes, anywhere I can get someone to stand still and listen, doing some very "selective" polling on my own. Last night I bought one gentleman an adult beverage, he was the first I had asked who even knew this bond was out there, and he had it confused with the last one. I still awarded him my "gold star for civic interest"; between a mysterious murder, a chief's race, water line breaks, he was the only person I asked who even knew this was on the table.

Trust me that will not hold, not posed on a November election. Unless something changes, I am putting the over/under on voter turnout at 33,500 in Nov. a record setting 60% turnout. Problem is, we will get a lot of voters who will be primarily there for the Presidential, who may or may not know squat about the bond. They will just trip over it on the ballot and think, "Sounds like money out of my pocket, no thank you". On strictly process electoral terms, the bond should be THE headliner on whichever election date it is placed. Well, it is what it is.

I will say this; if I am proved wrong as to voter sentiment, I will give my full-throated support to both Propositions. For now, I will lobby hard to get consideration of a three high school vision, but I am hardly ready to oppose either, if that is what we go with. On Prop 2, I am for the moment, frankly, dithering.

Board members, Superintendent Bonds, you know I have read all the Huckabee material the Committee saw, possibly other info they did not review. The last successful bond was amended before it was put in formal ballot language, we have time to "take the temperature" of voters now, and amend if necessary. If I am "dithering", where do you think the voters, who may well think you are selling the last bond again, might be?

We cannot afford to lose two bonds in a row. If voters really prove to prefer the 5A/4A two high school vision, I will accede to that preference and do what I can to help sell it. The fact that the committee preferred the three school vision tells me we really need to look at that idea before we let the bean-counters flush it.

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