Sunday, May 25, 2008

"Bonding" with the Community

As regular readers might recall, I was stridently opposed to last May's school bond, in point of fact, I registered as treasurer of an SPAC committee formed to defeat it. Then and now, I admitted that SAISD needs a bond issue, something in the range of $100-150 million for capital improvements. Where I and the voters, by nearly 2 to 1, fell out was where and how that sum would be spent.

At risk of dating myself, this bond is "Not Your Father's Oldsmobile". Some elements of it may sound familiar, but its direction is materially different from that which got thumped last May.

As to strategic direction, the last bond emphasized bulldozers, consolidation and new construction, both in primary and high school measures. For instance, last bond would have closed San Jacinto and Holiman, essentially sending every kid in north-east Angelo to an expanded Bradford campus. Crockett would have been moved from the Johnson St. site to one outside walking distance of its constituent students.

Prop One of this bond will dedicate $100 million to renovation/expansion and ADA compliance at 8 elementary campuses, $13 million at Lee Middle school, give Lakeview the $2 million "stolen" (we will return to this term later) from the fire insurance settlement, and do $40 million in overdue upgrades at the Central campus.

Let me say from jump street, I know several of the Facilities Committee members, I have respect for their effort, and I sincerely thank them for it. As me Irish forebears would say, the devil is in the details, and I fear the details might yet sink this new bond.

When the Facilities Committee put forth its original proposal, one of the first questions I heard was why a 1,200 square feet classroom was going to cost more than a new home twice that size. Asst. Superintendent Jeff Bright correctly pointed out that school construction is unavoidably more expensive than housing. That still leaves the voters mystified as to why one classroom at Reagan costs $375,000 while 4 classrooms at Goliad come in at $2.5 million, or about $520,000 each, a fine point that Mr Van Hoozer pointed out to Board before I could jump on it.

In fairness, the Committee took as a baseline the estimates of the Huckabee firm hired for the last bond. Those are not bad estimates at all, Huckabee was lusting after a $130 million contract, and had about 8.5 million reasons to be as thorough as possible. Unfortunately, in the construction business, estimates are just that, guesses. One can factor in inflation, but we might as well try to project the price of gas next January. If my notes are accurate, the Committee took the Huckabee numbers, factored in a 39% inflation and roughly went with that.

Unfortunately, this leaves them and SAISD looking silly on some particulars. I work for a dirt-work/paving business and without speaking out of turn, I imagine my boss would jump all over a $450,000 contract for a drop-off lane at Holiman and throw in the "additional parking" for all the driving students there for free.

There lies the "devil in the details". On the one hand, the Facilitory Advisory Committee Report of April 14 is still the actionable item. As an example, item 2, Bradford Elementary lists at $5,308,132. Are we sure that might not be $5, 308,136? Of course not, no figure past the first two digits is worth mentioning.

Now we come to Prop Two, the $30 million for a new big-block Central on the existing site. It would take the $39 million for Central upgrades in Prop One, add $30 million, and result in a spanking new Central. Mind that the notion of a three 4A high school plan was shot down because estimates for that ran close to $90 million according to Asst. Superintendent Jeff Bright, plus loss of economy of scale and life-cycle costs.

This is not as silly as it sounds. A new Central would preserve the main Gym and a really beautiful theater, not to mention a natatorium (swimming pool) that would cost $5 million to replace elsewhere.

School bonds in Texas are the capital improvement mechanism, and nearly 90% of them pass. The only one to fail in our area I know of lately is Abilene's last attempt, and it went down due to voters' suspicion a big chunk of the money was going to a sports complex rather than education.

The last successful bond here is nearly paid off, it passed because we trusted the SAISD board to use the money well. I was involved in that bond, and by and large, the money was spent well.

That is going to be THE key to passing this bond, trust. To get there, the Board will have to do some serious tinkering with the proposal before we get to ballot language. SAISD has done a lot towards correcting the maintenance downsizing of 2000, they ain't there yet, but they really are trying. As it stands, the bond proposal is saying "trust us, we will spend it well". The last bond election voters clearly said, "We don't trust you as far as we can throw you".

I have suggested to Board that they do some real polling; not the push-poll they did last May but some genuine sampling of public opinion. Every source I've seen advises polling as part of the bond design process. San Angelo is small enough that very little polling is done, and so we are sometimes surprised. In our most recent election for Police Chief, it was taken as a matter of faith that there would be a run-off, with Davis as the surviving contender. Surprise! In he context of a $130 million bond, $15K for a good poll is not irrational. It just might give us direction as to voter preferences.

The last thing we need is for a second bond to fail. On that, I agree with Dr. May, Superintendent Bonds and the SAISD Board. That said, I have serious problems with the bond as presented. For one thing, I am glad I have the original Facilities Committee Report in ink-on-dead-trees format, it takes quite an exercize to get it out of SAISD website. The justification for approval last Monday (sorry, I was in Midland) was to allow the Facilities Committee to form up in support, a good idea of itself. BUT, if we are serious about selling this bond, we need to be up-front and honest. The Bond should be a highly visible link on the SAISD homepage, not something it takes a computer geek a half day to find.

Now, back to the "stolen" term used in reference to Lakeview, you are going to need Lakeview voters to pass this bond. It is well remembered that the insurance money from the fire was $2 million more than was spent on the new campus. I will not argue here whether that was a justifiable decision; the fact the $2 million (pardon me, $2.085,000) in this proposal is supposed to "replace portables" argues for itself. Like it or not, the north/south electoral divide in Angelo is a reality this bond will have to deal with if it is to pass.

Board, Superintendent Bonds, Dr. May; I am honestly on your side. I know the district needs this much money and more. That said, spend some time talking to a used-car salesman. You are selling a product, (the bond) to a resistant buyer (voter) who has all too recently told you to pound sand. There is only one option available to you, the last resort of the used-car salesman as it were: tell the truth and convince the voter you are telling the truth. We must earn the voters' trust, we do not have it now.

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