By Helen Cochran.
Support for the Wichita school district’s proposed $370 million school bond issue from the business community has been lukewarm. There are valid reasons why this support has not been forthcoming.
First and foremost is academic accountability. Nationally, bond proposals have been trimmed or postponed as communities wrestle with priorities and the lack of cost-benefit analysis on proposed expenditures. Business communities are zeroing in on student achievement and dropout rates as education costs soar. Evidence of how large expenditures will better prepare students for the work force is being demanded of district administrators and school board officials.
The Wichita school district asks the community to make an investment in our future yet fails to provide the information and accountability necessary to make such a commitment. Recent requests for information have been denied or have taken more than a month to fulfill.
The district asserts that “the quality of facilities directly impacts the academic success of USD 259’s children” but, when pressed, can provide no concrete evidence that supports such assertions.
In early spring, bond opponents encouraged the district to carefully consider the waning economy before proceeding. It was argued that the time was not right to ask for bricks-and-mortar support. These warnings went unheeded.
The recent collapse of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and some of our country’s largest investment banks has brought the economy into full focus. Neither side can predict the consequences, but it would be prudent to withhold expenditures that have no direct academic benefit.
The district argues that construction costs will increase if we delay, but we argue that they will just as likely decrease as we face the possibility of a worldwide recession. Given the current interest rate environment, the historical spreads of agencies, municipals and commercial bonds to Treasuries have widened and will remain so until the current financial turmoil is over. The district argues that interest rates are favorable, yet the only favorable rates currently offered are on U.S. Government Treasuries.
The full impact of the bond’s cost is far beyond the example of $42.55 a year for the owner of a $100,000 home. If you take the annual cost to pay off the bond (about $30 million) and divide that by the population living in the school district (314,141) you get about $95. This is the full spectrum of the bond cost for each person, for each year. For a family of four in that $100,000 home, that’s $380 a year in purchasing power redirected away from your business or family to the school district.
Another taxpayer impact is hidden costs. What are the future operational budget projections if new facilities are added to the existing $605.4 million operating budget? The additional costs — maintenance, personnel, utilities, insurance, depreciation, etc. –are necessary factors to consider. Will another mill levy increase be imposed to cover the additional operating costs?
The school district continues to tailor, then change its arguments based upon challenges by opponents. No longer does one hear the blanket overcrowding argument as it has been debunked. Preliminary counts this year exceed the 2000 enrollment by 41 students. Five hundred classrooms have been added since 2000.
When questioned about accountability, both fiscally and academically, the district cites the fact that it is the largest district in Kansas, is burdened by more low-income children and has more special-needs children. Is the district implying that these burdens explain why we don’t perform as well? If that is the case, perhaps it is time to consider breaking this district into two or three smaller districts. Perhaps smaller districts could be better managed and maintained. Perhaps forced competitiveness might strengthen student achievement.
The bottom line is academic accountability. Perceived needs such as physical amenities are not the real needs at all. Such confusion is costly and does not ensure work force preparedness.