Some Wichita school board members are skeptical of the tax proposal

Some Wichita school board members are skeptical of the tax proposal

The Wichita school board likely won’t decide whether to bring a bond issue proposal to voters until August, Commissioner Kelly Bielefeld said Thursday.

At a facilities master plan workshop, the three conservative council members expressed concerns about the consultants’ recommendation on the $450 million bond issue, saying they were not ready to commit to asking voters to support that plan or any major construction plan.

Getting a bond issue question on the ballot would require the approval of a majority of the school board’s seven members.

“I think the plan is great. I just don’t think it’s affordable right now,” Kathy Bond said of the recommendation, which calls for the district to completely rebuild eight schools, build two new buildings and reduce its overall footprint by 11 buildings by consolidating programs over the next five. years.

“I think time has stopped,” Bond said. “I think if we can start doing some of this plan without asking the community for a bond right now — because you say, ‘Well, it’s not going to raise taxes.’ In fact, it will be. In fact, ask the community to extend the 2008 bond issue right now.”

The high mill tax rate associated with the 2008 bond issue will expire in 2029. That same rate would be renewed, possibly for another 20 years, if voters support the so-called “zero tax increase” bond issue. $450 million is the most the district could collect without raising the existing mill tax.

Without the new bond issue, tax rates would decline after 2029.

“While I like the plan, I wonder if there are ways to scale it back to meet the needs of taxpayers and be fiscally responsible about it,” said Vice President Diane Albert.

Luke Newman, the school district’s director of facilities, said without a bond issue, the district’s $1.2 billion in deferred maintenance needs would rise to about $3.59 billion by 2033.

“No part of this plan is possible without a connection. We just don’t have the capital money to do any part of it,” Newman told council members. “All of our capital is going to address deferred maintenance needs like structural issues and things that we’re dealing with right now.”

He said whether or not a bond issue passes, the district will need to consolidate schools in the coming years to offset declining enrollment and phase out buildings that are not worth maintaining.

Julie Hedrick, who served as the district’s director of facilities before being elected to the school board, said the state funding model is not designed to support building maintenance.

“Our school funding formula in Kansas is not set up to keep up or address our deferred maintenance issues. No matter how efficient we are, no matter how budget conscious we are, there is no funding available to Kansas schools to keep up with all the school maintenance and improvement needs,” Hedrick said.

Alternative source of funding?

Bond asked if instead of taking a voter bond issue, district staff could focus on applying for grants to pay for capital projects. Bielefeld said staff routinely apply for grants, but funding $450 million for infrastructure upgrades would be impossible.

“I think if the community sees us trying to find resources elsewhere before coming to them, they might be inclined to vote for it,” Bond said.

She suggested that $259 could be held back from promoting a bond issue by asking everyone in Wichita to volunteer money.

“If 300,000 people gave $5, that would fix it, and we wouldn’t even need to ask for a bond issue,” Bond said.

“Well, no, 300,000 times five is not $450 million,” Bielefeld replied.

If all 396,192 Wichita residents contributed $5, that would amount to just under $2 million.

“But we can get there somehow,” Bond said. “If somebody could make a one-time donation of — I’m just throwing things out so they don’t have to go to a bond issue. I just think outside the box. I’ll think of anything to prevent a hookup, even if it’s silly.”

Community survey

Hedrick said he doesn’t see a viable path forward without a bond issue.

“The needs are great. Money is limited,” Hedrick said. “We are at a point where the board could approve taking a bond to the voters and not have to raise the mill tax.

“I think we’ve heard that maybe we’d like to make some minor changes, but kind of a plan to find the efficiencies that we need to provide the learning environments that we want to provide for our students.”

Hazel Stabler, who was elected on a Conservative ticket with Bond and Albert in 2021, said the council should take its time assessing the recommendations of the facilities master plan before seeking funding.

“It took our consultants, I think eight months to prepare this recommendation. And I hope as a board we don’t rush our decision to vote to accept this,” Stabler said. “I think we need some time to really assess how we can adjust this.”

Woolpert consultants will present the results of a community survey seeking input on the facilities master plan at next Thursday’s board meeting, which is scheduled for lunch at the Alvin E. Morris Administrative Center in South Edgemoor.

Bielefeld said over the summer, board members will determine how they want to proceed with the facilities recommendation and potential bond proposal.

“If we want something smaller, the real decision is what does that mean? What comes out? So that would be the priorities for July,” Bielefeld said.

“August is probably our target for an actual vote.”

The deadline to receive a question about the Sedgwick County November ballot is September 2nd. Hedrick said she is not concerned about whether or not the board can decide on a proposal before then.

“I’m in no rush. I want to respect the concerns of all my fellow board members.”

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