District needs a better bond issue

A good education, as well as good facilities, is a central pillar around which a community is built.

And as we’ve said before, Newton needs a bond.

Yet, considering the overall health of the community, the need to spend tax dollars wisely, the need for the school district to prepare for the future, and our newspaper’s mission statement of advocating for accountable and sensible governance, we cannot endorse this bond issue.

We hope that our year’s worth of exhaustive bond coverage has informed our readers and, while some may not agree with us, allows them to understand as well as hear our viewpoint.

The most glaring issue, in our minds, with this bond issue comes down to finances.

You might be seeing a lot of marketing in your mailboxes that explain the bond only increasing taxes by 8.43 mills. The district paid $13,000 to distribute the information as part of the bond campaign.

But what those fliers don’t show is the total tax burden of the bond issue, nor do they show the amount of interest the proposed bond would generate.

As the bond is structured to “wrap around” the existing $35 million of debt from the 2007 bond issue, we wouldn’t start paying principal on the new bond for at least eight years. Instead, the district would just pay approximately $12.139 million in interest during the time period on the $61 million.

Those numbers are compiled using data the district provided when publishing the legal notification associated with the bond issue.

The district could nearly build a new grade school for what it is paying in interest with this “wrap around” structure.

While that 8.43 mill tax increase may be what the district and its advisors decided would be most palatable for voters, it costs USD 373 money in the long run.

With a differently structured bond issue, or one that would wait until the existing $35 million of bond debt is closer to being paid off, the total amount the taxpayers would pay on a future bond could be reduced, or the district could opt for a larger bond with a similar tax impact.

With the proposed bond, the owner of a $100,000 home would pay approximately $3,900 in total on the bond issue.

We also do not think the current bond issue provides for much longevity, as it does not address future growth on the south end of Newton.

Growth patterns pointed out an area of expansion that makes sense to anyone familiar with Newton development. More residents and families are moving into town south of Highway 50. Two new apartment complexes to be completed south of the highway will only add to that growth.

If Newton does experience good years and good development, there will be only more crowding in the schools on the south end of the town. New school boundaries would help with that crowding, but with the town of Walton not projected for growth, busing to the newly expanded facility as outlined with the bond will be the solution for some of the students.

We worry in 10 years Newton will be struggling with the fact that it didn’t build a facility where growth was projected. A new school would also draw more development to Newton’s south end.

Superintendent Deb Hamm projected that it would be 20 years before the district would need another issue, but with a bond in 1997 and then 2007 and now 2017, we wonder if that 20-year projection is overly optimistic. The current high school was built in 1973 and only getting older, so we have $41 million in repairs pegged for it. We worry about when exactly the district will want to replace the building that this bond issue plans to sink $41 million into and if that substantial amount should be cut down and have some of it saved for a new high school.

The bond does provide a $15 million remodel to the interior of the high school. That’s something that is necessary. It would provide enough money to remodel the existing science rooms, which are in poor condition.

But then the bond would also spend $4.6 million to build a science wing. The idea is it will provide more space for classrooms in the interior of the building to be expanded, but we wonder if that $4.6 million could be better spent elsewhere or saved. The same goes for a $3.7 million expenditure to build an auxiliary gym, bringing the gym count at the high school to three. The gym will double as a FEMA-approved tornado shelter.

It always seems to be new gyms that get built in new bond issues. It might make more sense to use that money, along with the money pegged for the auditorium remodel, and just give the school a top-notch performing arts venue. That building could function as a storm shelter.

Or a more cost-effective solution for the storm shelter plan would be to install FEMA-approved storm doors on the high school hallways and improve the high school’s current storm plan, something that was FEMA certified before Joplin.

Finally, with all this, we feel that there was some ill-advised governance surrounding the bond.

When the board of education did see the plans and asked about the possibility of splitting the bond, the architectural and advisory firm it hired told them it was a bad idea and made the district look weak. They did this knowing that surrounding districts such as Andover and Maize had been successful in splitting their bond votes into multiple questions. We find it unfortunate that members of the school board did not have the backbone to stand up to their advisors and select options which would have allowed us to skip all of this mess.

Otherwise we would be writing an editorial that advocated for the district to make interior remodels to the high school, to make repairs and updates to Walton, and to add security upgrades to the grade schools. Then voters would be able to decide what extras they wanted, whether it was additional space at Walton, or an additional gym as well as science wing at Newton High School.

We think the remodel portion of the bond would have easily passed. Now it’s tied to options that aren’t universally popular and drive up the price of the bond while not doing enough, in our opinion, to prepare the district for the future.

Should the bond fail, we hope the community rallies back to the planning process and the district keeps the good parts of bond and drops the extra parts. We hope that the new school board brings with it the knowledge and steel to make decisions on what’s best for the community, not a company it hires to help it draw designs and market the bond.

Bond supporters worry that if this bond fails, it might take two to three years to get a bond on the ballot. We hope that is a worst-case scenario and the district can get another, improved bond option on the ballot for next year.

If they do not, consider that the district will be saving approximately $1.5 million in interest annually if it has to wait.

If this current bond fails, Walton will not close, no matter what the rumors say. However, the district will get a second chance to better spend taxpayer dollars and craft a more responsible plan that prepares for Newton’s future.

When that happens, we’ll be right behind that effort.