Following the failure of the USD 373 bond issue earlier this month, both current Newton school board members and those newly elected on Nov. 7 came together to begin outlining the next steps in the process at a special meeting Monday night.
Certain items have already been taken care of, like hiring Patron Insight as the district's polling consultant for a post-vote survey on the bond issue and postponing the selection process for the construction manager at risk. As the survey itself is still a few weeks off, Monday's special meeting centered on an open discussion among all board members regarding the failure of the bond and how to move forward.
That how is tied to the number of other school districts across the state that also choose to pursue bond issues in the coming years — as the failure of Newton's bond would drop them to bottom of the pile. A USD 373 bond issue would only be approved to go to a vote again if there was enough money left over after considering other districts' bond issues.
Newton superintendent Deb Hamm noted currently there is $112 million in state funding still available for bond issues in 2018 — which would require the district to reapply this school year — and $310 million in Fiscal Year 2019 (which starts July 1, 2018).
Questions of remaining funding aside, district leadership was more focused on pinpointing the why behind the bond issue's failure, bringing up a number of concerns raised in the lead-up to the election including the presence of a third gym at the high school, the price tag of the bond, the debt load that would come with it, the change in districtwide school configurations and more.
"Any or all of those factors could have influenced the vote," Hamm said. "What we don't know is what would our community say was the leading factor."
While the Patron Insight survey is meant to help isolate the specific issues behind the no vote, Hamm also clarified some of the concerns raised with the board members.
In regards to the third gym at NHS, both Hamm and board members Barbara Bunting and Steve Richards outlined an understanding that the additional gym was the least expensive way of meeting storm shelter requirements at the high school, while it was also noted that the second gym would have been converted into more of a multi-purpose room. Meanwhile, the price tag was one settled on to ensure the district had the right amount of funds for the job — as more funding cannot be requested after a bond has passed.
Restrictions both with classroom space and the district's budget overall were also brought up, with Hamm noting there are limits to how far both can be stretched. Last year alone, Hamm stated that the capital outlay fund generated $1.8 million in revenue — to be spent solely on new construction, equipment or repairs — while administration received $7.3 million worth of requests for those funds.
Concerning the space, board president Carol Sue Stayrook Hobbs admitted she was in the schools recently and saw how overcrowding can negatively impact district teachers working in more individualized groups in a single classroom.
"I think we have to move forward with our facility issues," Hobbs said. "It increasingly appears that we need to have flexibility with our space in order to provide education."
Board member Dick Koontz questioned if there would be a way to project the cost savings of the HVAC upgrades, foreseeing that as a potentially helpful tool in moving forward with another bond. Meanwhile, among the number of issues brought up that may have stalled the bond, moving forward Bunting stated the need to prioritize the longest-tenured item and the one that affects all district students — renovations at the high school.
Discussion amongst the board members and district administration made it clear that needs remain — needs that can only be addressed through a bond. The idea of finding an inspiring and innovative plan was brought up by multiple board members, with the intent to drive more community investment in the bond, potentially by going back through the other bond options that were not ultimately selected for this November's ballot.
"Are one of those other plans the one that's gonna put the fire under our community?" Bunting asked.
Richards was quick to point out as well, though, that if multiple bond questions are presented it could run the risk of the highest priority needs being neglected — especially if they come with a heftier price tag — and creating even more problems.
Members of the board were in consensus that the results of the Patron Insight survey will greatly inform the next measures taken by the group, and all were equally quick to note how important it will be to communicate the next steps of the process with the community.
Ultimately, informing the public is a role the board has to take on in moving forward with another bond issue, with Hamm noting its collective actions can also speak volumes to that.
"We need a 7-0 vote. Whatever comes needs to be supported by the board," Hamm said. "We need everybody, from the superintendent to the custodian, on board."