On Aug. 14, the USD 373 bond ballot will be mailed out. They want many things for the almost $86 million they are asking for. A recurring theme during the discussions that many of the current board members just completely dismissed was the last bond failed because it was too much money at $61 million. But somehow, with a shiny new school on the south end of town, the citizens of Newton will agree to $86 million? With the current $32 million in bonded indebtedness this will put the school at almost $120 million in debt. That is more than $35,000 for each of the 3,350 students in the district.
On question one, it is addressing many things for $61 million. The high school needs some remodeling, but a third gym? Also, the storm shelters that we just paid off from the bond in the mid-’90s are no longer any good? What makes the architects today so sure that asking for millions more will make these new shelters last longer than the bond? I was part of the community team that was supposed to put forth a proposal for the bond. The architects steered 24 people into a "more is better" talk each meeting. They constantly beat the drum "it’s for the children." The district got suckered into a contract for three tries at a bond with this group before they can fire them. Does this group really have the taxpayers’ best interest at heart?
On question two, the district wants a new school south of US-50 highway and to close Walton school. This makes perfect sense if you look at where the population movement is going when we need more classrooms. But right now there are unused classrooms in several of the elementary schools around town. This is a management problem, not a space problem. For that matter, the district used to have enrollment of more than 3,600 students with the same amount of square footage as it has now. Now, with almost 10 percent fewer students, the district needs substantially more space?
Newton is already at 170 mills of tax levy. We are looking at a 3 mill increase from the city and 11 mills if both questions of the bond pass. If the county, library, rec center or any other taxing entity grab a mill or two, we are looking at 190 mills! Just for comparison, other cities in the area are Derby at 145 mills, Goddard at 141 mills, Valley Center at 150 mills, and Maize at 154 mills. When a business is considering moving to a community they look at many factors. Tax rate, utility rate, workforce and amenities are all important. But if right out of the box you have an underperforming school system, 20 percent higher property tax, much higher utility rate, homeless wandering up and down Main Street, it makes it difficult to attract more development.
I believe more can be done with what the district already gets with better management. It means taking a stance and making the hard decisions that will be unpopular with some. We need an administration that can say no and manage what we have. Having been involved with the bond issue twice now, I believe the real needs of the district can be remedied with $20 million or less, but alas, my voice gets drowned out every time in a room full of handpicked yes people.
Vote no on this bond and call your board members to tell them to get real about the needs of the district and start managing it, instead of just whining about needing more money.
Jason Mitchell is a member of the leadership team of the Harvey County Republican Party. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.