Levies are for Learning and Bonds are for Building
Several things about this levy are troublesome including the process used to determine the need for entirely new schools, the budget numbers for the schools, and the choice to use a levy vs. the traditional bond measure and its impact on the citizens of the school district.
Let’s first look at the mechanism they chose. There is a saying that “Levies are for learning and bonds are for building”. Levies are short-term vehicles, and in this case it’s six years. Bonds are typically spread out over 20-30 years and used for higher-dollar building programs. Bonds spread the cost to tax payers out over a longer period, reducing the overall yearly cost to tax payers. A bond requires a two-thirds approval from the voters. A levy, however, only takes a fifty-five percent vote of approval. We know from the school board chair’s statement that the 55% vote requirement was the primary driver for the district to choose this method. The issue of course is impact on the tax payers – $55.1 million spread out over 30 years vs. the same amount spread out over a six-year period. The choice has a serious impact on tax payers.
Now, one could say, “Well, it’s only six years.” However, the school district has already announced that this is only Phase 1 of 3, so those six years could be extended. We currently have about 2,400 county residents who have not been able to pay their property taxes and scores more in the county that are living on the edge. It’s obvious that none of these tax payer related factors where considered as important when deciding between a bond and a levy.
Many have inquired about the process used to determine what the cost of the Middle School repairs would be, and the best answer given is, “We relied on our experts.” The “experts” gave a budget range in their report of $140 – $160 a square foot for “modernizing”. Are these accurate numbers? They show quite a cost span. What work would be required to repair the various components that might need fixing? What is the estimate to fix each of them? Well, none of that information exists as that process was never done. Instead of looking at issues with the Middle School as an example and getting general budget estimates for repair or replacement, the district just ran with an unquantified value provided by their “experts”. There should be an item-by-item set of budget estimates we can all review to see if the cost to repair or renovate the Middle School is in fact 71% of the cost of a new school. (Or 60% or 80%, depending on whom you listen to.) We understand the number quoted by the “expert” is for a total modernization or a gutting of the building, not addressing specific issues.
That brings us to the cost of a new school. The estimate from the “expert” is $200 a square foot for construction and $60 a foot for soft costs which include design fees, permits, etc. This is, reportedly based on research we have seen on average school construction costs. The average cost is closer to $350 per foot, which, if the total modernization number for the current Middle School really is $140 – $160 a foot, and a new school is $350 a foot, the modernization looks to be a better direction. Again, there is a lack of real information and absence of specificity provided by the District which leads one to ask if indeed anyone on their facilities committee understands what they are doing.
But let’s get back to the cost of a school, if indeed all the information was provided to make an educated decision and after reviewing the information it was determined that we needed, as an example, a new Middle School. Doesn’t it make more sense to properly budget the construction based on hard data for buildings designed for our area that will provide long term, low cost performance as opposed to picking a low number and making cost cutting decisions to fit within an unrealistic budget? It just sounds like a recipe for disaster and higher costs down the road.
One more question, if you look at the budget estimate per square foot and the estimated square footage of the buildings, the math doesn’t add up. Again, it is my contention that the cost per square foot is too low, so the $55.1 million dollar number may also be too low. So where does that number come from? From statements by the school’s CFO we learned that the asking price is really the maximum amount the district can request under a levy that only requires a 55% approval. So it seems entirely possible that we might see an issue where, once the District gets into design, they may not actually build three schools along with the other work they want to do and instead will have to start cutting projects.
To me, there are too many questions without answers, too much missing information and a lack of accountability to the process that it appears to be a design to fail. For all these reasons and many more, I am voting No on the Levy. We believe the school board needs to go back to the drawing board, run one school at a time, or choose the bond method for financing as it will help reduce the cost to tax payers already struggling in our county. And please, please, get real data we as tax payers paying the bill can review and comment on.