While there may have been no primaries held in Harvey County this fall, the election train will start gearing up shortly as ballots for USD 373's bond election are set to be mailed this coming week, on Aug. 14. Voters in the Newton school district — who can register through Aug. 13 — will then have until noon Sept. 3 to submit their ballots to the election office at the Harvey County Courthouse.
There has been plenty of discussion about the bond leading up to the election, so here's a final look at some key information and some answers to frequently asked questions.
The bond issues in question
Voters in USD 373 will have not one but two issues to vote on in the mail ballot election. The first question asks voters for approval of a bond project that would tackle updates and maintenance work to all district buildings (with a heavy focus on Newton High School) at a total cost of $61,320,000. The second question asks voters to make a decision on the construction of an entirely new K-6 building — with three sections for each grade level to allow for growth — south of town for a cost of $24,420,000. If both are approved, the total bond cost would come to $85,740,000.
What is the scope of the work?
Question two is cut and dry, given that it is asking about the construction of a completely new school building, but there are a lot of pieces covered in question one. The majority of the work outlined in that bond would go toward renovating the high school — including the fine arts area, commons, kitchen, pool and more, along with security/technology and HVAC upgrades — as well as constructing a new auxiliary gym/storm shelter and science wing.
Additionally, similar maintenance and security/technology work would be done at both middle school buildings, while the bond project also includes additional classroom space for Santa Fe 5/6 Center and a storm shelter for Chisholm Middle School.
For the Newton elementary schools, the bond includes security/technology upgrades (including secure entries) at all locations while all buildings would also see storm shelter upgrades — for Slate Creek and Walton Rural Life Center — or construction of entirely new shelters. All elementary schools would also have HVAC work done and Walton would be the recipient of improvements to handicap accessibility. Window/door replacement and exterior wall repairs at Walton are also included as part of the first bond question, along with an additional $300,000 to address immediate needs to aging infrastructure at the building.
If both questions pass, it has been noted that the cost of those separate Walton improvements and additional classroom space at Santa Fe would be deducted from the overall cost — leading to the final figure for question two.
The district has stated low interest rates and getting ahead of inflation as reasons for moving forward with another bond project after the previous one was voted down in 2017. While a followup survey showed the cost of the bond as an issue among the voting public, the pressing needs of the high school were pointed to by district staff and board members as significant enough to continue moving forward with a bond project. Current issues at Walton Rural Life Center — as well as other concerns (such as overcrowding at other district schools) on the immediate horizon — also led the district to add the second bond question about a new K-6 building contingent on passage of the first question.
How will this affect local taxpayers?
One of the biggest questions with any bond project is just how much it will cost local voters. With a compound ballot question, the issue could impact district patrons in a number of ways. Question one comes with a projected 7.44 mill increase, which would increase taxes on a $100,000 home by $7.13 on a monthly basis (or $85.56 annually), while question two has a 3.5 mill increase associated with it — which would increase taxes on the same home by $3.35 per month or $40.20 annually. If both issues pass, that's a nearly 11 mill increase and an increase in annual taxes of nearly $126 on a $100,000 home.
With the proposed 2019-2020 budget recently approved for publication, it was noted those potential increases would not go into effect until the next fiscal year for USD 373.
What will happen to Walton Rural Life Center and the agricultural project based learning program?
Again, with the two-question ballot, there are a number of potential scenarios. If only question one passes — with a number of enhancements included for Walton Rural Life Center — the elementary school will remain open and functioning as it does currently.
If both question one and question two are passed, the school in Walton will be closed and the ag program will be transferred to the proposed school south of town. The Newton City Commission recently passed a resolution to allow such a program within city limits and the district has signed a contract for land acquisition along SW 24th Street (near the Old Main intersection) — though that contract is contingent upon passage of the bond.
There is a stipulation on the bond vote, too, that question two can only move forward if question one passes. If question one fails and question two passes, construction on the new elementary building will not move forward.