By Adam Strunk
The Walton question is not decided. There’s support for splitting the bond issue on the ballot. And when they do have a work session to hash out a bond proposal, some school board members will have different opinions about the path forward for USD 373.
That’s the conclusion after contacting the Newton School Board and interviewing five of the seven members.
During the last few months, Newton Now has covered what staff and administration think about a possible bond issue, what consultants think, what a demographic study suggests and what a community task force proposed. But at the end of the day, those bits of information are only input. So Newton Now wondered, what exactly do board members think?
Newton Now reached out to all seven board members and was able to get in contact with six, Dick Koontz, Tim Hodge, Carol Sue Stayrook Hobbs, Barbra Bunting and Renee Erickson. Steve Richards did not immediately answer requests for an interview. Renee Erickson asked for questions to be sent by e-mail but had not responded as of press time.
The song that never ends
The school board received the recommendation from a 24-member community task force of a $59.9 million bond option that would spend $41 million updating the high school, $11.7 million remodeling and making Walton a two-section building, $1 million to allow South Breeze to expand to a three-section school and the rest of the money allocation basically going to other safety upgrades in the district. The plan would raise property taxes by around 11 mills. A detailed breakdown of the plan was published in last week’s Newton Now.
Board members interviewed uniformly expressed an appreciation of the work accomplished by the Bond Advisory Task Force and the six meetings the group spent hashing out a bond recommendation from the school district.
“They’re looking at all the aspects of the newest high school,” Matt Treaster said. “I don’t see anything that I didn’t like. I was very excited to see them add the science wing.”
However, following conversations with the board members, it became clear that the plan would likely see tweaking before it made it onto a ballot.
Koontz said he wanted to hear discussion on turning a new gymnasium into a multipurpose storm shelter.
Hodge, Hobbs, Koontz and Bunting all brought up the need for the district to make financial considerations and look at what its voting base can and would be willing to support in a possible bond issue.
“I think we’re in a tough financial situation where we can only do so much with the tax tolerance available,” Hodge said.
Hobbs noted that the district needed to take into account looming tax increases with the City of Newton and the county, possibility of decreased state and federal dollars to the school district and being good stewards of their funding. She said that redrawing district boundaries was a must, not only to spread out students evenly but to mitigate the dangers safety hazards such as Highway 50 and the interstates posed. She said she hoped future school board conversations would discuss some of the proposed remodels of the high school, one of the district’s main priorities, and felt that the bond planning process spent a lot of its time focused on discussing closing or keeping Walton open.
Bunting also brought up a need to change district boundaries.
“If it was easy, we would have changed boundaries years ago,” she said. She added of the proposed high school plan, “I definitely can say it isn’t frills.”
What the discussion of fiscal responsibility would look like, and whether it would mean trying to cut down the cost of the bond plan, remains to be seen. The main question and area where the interviewed board members differ is what exactly to do at the grade school level, whether to build a new K-5 school south of town or remodel Walton.
Walton or Remodel
Dick Koontz did not give a direct answer on if the district should build a new school on the south end of town where growth has occurred and is projected or remodel and keep Walton open, an option that has enjoyed vocal support.
“There’s still some divided opinion about moving forward with both the renovation and expansion of the Walton facility or a new facility,” he said. “I think that I haven’t taken in my own mind a strong, firm position. I feel like it would be good for the board to have further discussion.”
Matt Treaster stated a favorable opinion of keeping Walton open.
“When we went into this process, I thought the public support for this would be building the new building on the south side,” he said.
As requested by the Bond Advisory Task Force, district patrons were surveyed over the phone on a Thursday night. Seven hundred responded, and 71 percent said they’d vote in favor of a bond issue that remodeled Walton Rural Elementary and did not build a new elementary school in Newton. Twenty-nine percent said they would vote against a bond issue that did that.
“After the telephone survey, it seems like the community is overwhelmingly supportive of a Walton remodel,” he said. “The neat thing that goes on at Walton is the incredible support that they have at their community; that was very evident.”
Bunting and Hobbs said they believed the best planning for the district, if it was planning to spend considerable money on a grade school, would be to move the Walton program to a school south of town.
“With the info I have at this point in time, I think the best decision for the district is a school south of town,” Hobbs said. Hobbs said Walton is synonymous with an agricultural-based school, something that would continue on at a new school in south Newton.
“We had conversations with the city already about having farm animals,” she said.
Hobbs added that she’s a large supporter of project-based learning, but the decision has to do with a number of reasons. For one, she said the district’s population growth is projected to happen on the south of Newton. Another concern she had was the safety of transporting a large student population along Highway 50.
“Three-fourths of the student population is transported there,” she said, clarifying that the number meant students driven or bused to the school.
Bunting also similar concerns to Hobbs.
“We spent a lot of money on a demographics study that confirmed what we already knew and that’s where the growth is, in the south,” Bunting said. “I’m concerned about the safety of busing children, which is different than the cost.”
Bunting said something the survey did not make clear was that the Walton agricultural, project-based learning program would be moved to a new school built on the south end of town. Bunting was adamant that she supported continuing the program.
Hodge said the decision on what to do with a future school should be decided by the community and what they are willing to pay. To do so, he suggested asking them directly on the ballot.
Splitting the Bond Issue
At the last school board meeting, Steve Richards said he heard suggestions about splitting a possible bond vote up into multiple options, and he’d like to look into such an approach. That suggestion was part of the impetus behind the board’s proposal to hold a work session before its next regular meeting to discuss the bond issue.
Of the other five interviewed, they were considering the idea of splitting the issue into multiple questions and some supported the idea.
“I’m OK with the question being split. That’s really the only way to figure out if there’s support for a certain project or not,” Hodge said. “I think a split vote is probably a way to handle the lack of money we have.”
Hodge saw the option as putting the high school and safety option upgrades as one option and the grade school remodel/construction question as one, if not two, options.
The hope with splitting a bond option up would be to at least get what board members view as the most pressing needs approved by voters and then allow them to vote to address additional, less pressing needs.
All interviewed said they viewed a high school remodel as the district’s number one priority. Additional safety measures were also a pressing concern.
“If there’s not support for the bond as it is, if we do anything, we have to do the high school portion of this,” Treaster said. “I would rather us get it all done at once, but I just think the high school has to get done.”
Koontz said he had been wondering if putting the high school as well as safety upgrades on a separate question from any grade school solution would be a feasible approach.
Bunting said she’d also be interested in gathering more information about the feasibility of the approach and hoped that the community would at least support a high school remodel.
Hobbs said it could be an option she’d like to see fleshed out with more conversation.
Regardless of what happens, Treaster said the board has a lot to discuss as it moves forward.
“The amount of money is important, whether or not we do split the bond, and is there support on the board to move forward as is,” he said.
The upcoming work session, which could be an important one as the district moves forward, has yet to be scheduled.