Bond issue needs right answer

Often there’s a right answer and there’s a political answer.

For a Newton School bond issue, the right answer would repair infrastructure issues at the high school and address current space issues as well as future growth within the district.

The right answer would be a bond that, five or 10 years down the line, doesn’t leave us asking, “Now why didn’t we just build a school here?” And the right answer would pass a vote.

A right answer takes a crystal ball and, if not that, some fortitude and well-reasoned debate and occasional disagreements.

As that isn’t something many of us have the stomach for now days, often the right answer must give way to the political answer.

A recent demographics study paid for by the district showed the area south of US Highway 50 is growing in student population and has grown. The number of students in the north end of Newton is decreasing.

Believe it if you care to, but the demographics study also predicted a five-percent increase in student population over the next five years.

South Breeze, which serves the south end, is close to capacity and should exceed capacity in the near future.

With the school’s existing boundaries, as well as students across the district attending it, Walton Rural is already over capacity, and that number is only expected to rise higher, according to the study. The capacity of the middle schools needs to be addressed.

Many issues could be solved with some simple redrawing of school boundaries, to proportion student populations through out the district equally at the grade school.

Doing this and switching to a K-5 format and creating two 6-8 middle schools would decrease pressure on the Santa Fe and Chisholm facilities, as it would remove a grade from the middle school system.
Maps and enrollment counts presented throughout the bond process show this decrease.

Understandably, a majority of our middle school teachers aren’t in favor of the change. Newton moved to its current model from a K-5 system. And it would make sense that if you work in a building currently functioning well, you’d have hesitations about making such a change.

Redrawing boundaries might remove the possibility for as many, if any, students outside of the Walton Rural boundary to attend the school. The size of its boundary, which covers areas south, east and even north of Newton, would also likely shrink if students were re-proportioned.

While that measure might make sense on paper, it becomes politically difficult.

Even if accomplished, such a plan still wouldn’t prepare the district for future enrollment increases.

To do that, one plan has suggested remodeling Walton into a two-section school for the cost of $11.7 million.

A new K-5 school is estimated to cost $15 million.

Any growth on the south end would continue to fill South Breeze or students would be bussed north to other schools with redrawn boundaries

For $4 million more, the district could build a new school on the south end of town where students are and numbers are expected to increase, which would position the area well for future development and an increase in Newton’s overall tax base.

With district resources and its number of teachers, Walton would have to close. That is a red line for many.

We wonder, given the choice of having the Walton program moved to a new school on the south end, with space given to agricultural learning, if many of the people fighting to keep the school open would be OK with that solution.

Still, with the strong support Walton has, the most politically viable option leaves the district spending more than two-thirds of the cost of a new school to expand an existing one with the least dense student base in an area of the district—the City of Walton—that hasn’t been growing.

In the short term, that’s great. No one wants to close a school. We just wonder how good that decision will look in 10 years, however.

All of this doesn’t mention the high school remodel that needs to be discussed. This part is the most urgent to the district, with the interior of the high school, especially locations like the science class rooms, in need of some upgrading and care. Such a remodel would cost money but not the $38 million that was originally estimated.

Remodeling the interior of the school, which includes the science classrooms, runs $15.9 million. The higher number is based on additions like an entire science wing, a new practice gym/storm shelter, an auditorium remodel and updates to Ravenscroft Gym.

The city upped its taxes last year and might in the future to pay for police station remodels. The county had a two mill increase earlier to pay for communication and might again for increased courthouse security

With all that swirling around, it’s hard to imagine voters going for another sizable tax increase to pay for a $66 million or $74 million bond.

Perhaps we’re wrong, but with the time it takes to get a bond organized, a loss would mean some of the necessary improvements to the high school, such as fixing its science infrastructure, would be delayed.

At this point in the process, we’re worried unless others speak up that the right will give way to the political. Either we’ll have a bond option that leaves us wondering 10 years from now why Newton leadership didn’t push for a school to address future development, or we’ll have an expensive bond issue fall on its face when we get to the ballot box.

The right answer and the political answer don’t have to be opposite sides of the coin. The right answer becomes politically viable when those who understand the issue choose to stand up and make themselves heard.