Remarks to Wichita School Board Meeting, May 12, 2008

Remarks delivered to the board of USD 259, the Wichita, Kansas public school district on May 12, 2008.

My name is Bob Weeks. I am a member of Wichitans For Effective Education, a citizens group. Thank you for this opportunity to address this board and audience.

Since as of today there is no date set for an election concerning a bond issue, and therefore no specific bond issue to talk about, I would like to express a few of the concerns my group has regarding the process surrounding the election and its issues.

One of the problems we have is what I call the “shifting landscape of facts” emerging from USD 259. Two examples will illustrate. We relied on information from USD 259 that building the safe rooms would cost $15 million, and we wondered why can’t something that modest be done without a bond issue? Then we learned that the issue is more complex after Mr. Cox issued a clarification. The total cost is really $75 million, with $15 million paid by FEMA. Then Mr. Libhart, in his April 13 Wichita Eagle editorial, used our reliance on these facts to discredit us.

But it wasn’t only Wichitans For Effective Education that used the $15 million number as the cost of the safe rooms. Two television stations carried news stories stating the cost of the safe rooms would be $15 million. Here’s a quote from a presentation made by Mr. Cox’s firm to this board: “Includes bus loading/unloading, parking, parent drop off, security lighting. Provide FEMA shelters at all schools. Total Cost: $24 to $31 million.” That’s the cost for the safe rooms plus other things. Now if we can’t rely on plain language like this, what can we rely on?

We also pointed out that school utilization overall is relatively low at 85%. Then we were criticized, both on the USD 259 website and in Mr. Libhart’s Wichita Eagle editorial, for using outdated information. But the figures underlying these calculations came from the district’s most recent Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for 2007, from a page of figures labeled as being current as of June 30, 2007. Here we relied on the most recently available public information from the district’s financial reports, and we were criticized for using old information.

The school district has the task of providing information and educating the public on the merits of the bond issue. It would be reasonable to expect that when representatives of the district criticize the data used by our group as old and no longer relevant, they would take steps to ensure that current and correct figures are available to the public.

A website, owned and operated by USD 259 and capable of criticizing bond issue opponents for using data that is not relevant, could easily post current relevant data and statistics to clarify and promote public debate using accurate information. But as of today, I have not seen updates issued to correct these outdated figures.

We as citizens cannot, to my knowledge, derive these figures ourselves. We must rely on you, the board and administration of the the Wichita public school district, to provide these figures.

Another problem we’ve had is that getting information from USD 259 can be prohibitively expensive. Wichitans For Effective Education made a records request for the number of classrooms and portables for the last two years. We were told this information is available to us at a cost of $860, with most of that cost paying for 40 hours of staff time to prepare the information. Besides not being able to afford to pay these prices for this information, we wonder how the district does not have this information readily available, especially since a claim of overcrowding is a prime reason given for the need for this bond issue. We wonder, then, if the district’s physical plant and assets are being managed effectively. Furthermore, if the number of classrooms is not known, how can anyone calculate the capacity of each school?

So the shifting landscape of facts has been a problem for us. We find ourselves in a position where if we rely on facts from public documents and formulate an argument based on them, USD 259 will revise the facts, and we will be scolded on the district’s website and the editorial pages of the Wichita Eagle about how we are mistaken.

The issue of the need for the special election is a problem, too. Several members of Wichitans For Effective Education appeared before this board and made the case for having the bond issue question appear as part of the already-scheduled August or November elections, instead of having a special election in the spring. But district administration delivered a presentation on the time value of money, explaining how any delay in the election would increase building costs much more than the cost of the special election. What changed that made the board willing to forgo those savings?

Similarly, an argument was made that with a May special election a new high school could be ready for use at the start of the 2011 school year. Delaying the election until even August would mean the school would not be available until the following school year. But now, apparently, those facts have changed.

The members of Wichitans For Effective Education care about our schools and the education of Wichita’s children. We have tried to be responsive and helpful in providing feedback to the board and the community. But as you see, we’ve had some issues with the data and facts provided by USD 259. Without accurate and complete data, without a common set of facts to reason from, we feel the community can’t have an effective dialog about the needs of the schools.

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