Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Require bonds for the new capacity, not the improvements

Next week, the superintendent will propose a time line for the projects in the facilities master plan. I’m certainly curious to see which projects he will recommend to go first, and which will have to wait. But what I’m really curious to know (and I don’t know if we’ll find this out next week) is which projects will require new bonds.

By all accounts, the district is about $100 million short of what it would need to fund its entire long-term facilities plan. As a result, many of the projects will require bonds. Those bonds will need to get 60% approval at the polls – never a sure bet, as the proponents of the county justice center can attest.

I hope the district will state its criteria for deciding which projects will proceed with existing funds and which can’t happen without bonds. It’s a complex issue, but in my view, basic improvements to existing buildings – such as air conditioning, overdue maintenance, accessibility renovations, and the construction of gyms/cafeterias/multipurpose rooms – should not require bond votes. It makes more sense to require bonds for some of the new capacity construction, especially to the extent that those projects are controversial and particularly expensive.

By my (very rough) calculations, the district plans to spend about $104 million on improvements, and about $148 million on building new capacity. Some of the new capacity is urgently needed; it might make sense, for example, to go ahead with building the addition at Penn and a new east side elementary without first seeking a bond vote. But the capacity projects that are more expensive, more controversial, and less immediately necessary should be the ones that are subject to bonding.

As for the time line, I’d take the same approach: The improvements are needed now, and in many cases are years overdue. Much of the new capacity is not.

I can’t deny that my criteria would help the case for keeping Hoover open. Hoover can’t close until there’s enough new capacity to relieve overcrowding and absorb the almost four hundred kids from Hoover. If any of the bonds for new elementary capacity get voted down, Hoover will have a new lease on life. But there’s good reason the closure should hinge on bond votes: it’s an expensive luxury compared to the urgently needed projects in the plan. In any event, their effect on Hoover aside, I can’t think of any fairer set of criteria.

The board members have some hard choices to make – partly because previous boards avoided making them – and I don’t envy them. As I understand it, even the improvements alone would have to be spread out over time, because the money is not available all at once. There’s no perfect answer. I’d love to know other people’s thoughts about how the time line should proceed and which projects should need bonds. Post a comment!


Michael Tilley said...

I think that if the temporary AC system (significantly different than what other schools will receive) is installed at Hoover, that it will be the end of the chance to save Hoover. That will be a good chunk of a million dollars that will be wasted, if they decide they want to keep Hoover open and fully renovate it.

It puts us in an awkward position -- we want AC in our school like the others but we also want to keep Hoover open.

Chris said...

Michael – Good point. I don’t think I’d go as far as saying that the temporary AC would make the closure irreversible; the closure will still be an expensive luxury compared to the other projects, and it will still depend on whether any necessary bonds for new capacity get approved, etc. But it’s a good reason for the board to revisit the closure sooner rather than later. That said, as I understand it, the temporary AC might consist of equipment that can be reused afterward elsewhere, which means it wouldn’t be a total loss if the school remains open.

Anonymous said...

Curious as to which capacity projects you consider controversial and why

Chris said...

Anonymous -- That's a good question, and answering it would take more time than I have this morning, but I'll reply more fully tonight.

But again, the basic improvements strike me as the least controversial projects, and that's $104 million right there. As I understand it, that leaves about $46 million for other unbonded projects. Maybe the better question is which of the remaining projects are so important and so urgent that they should be part of that $46 million.

Anonymous said...

BLDD had prioritized the physical assessment needs into four categories: A, immediate, B, necessary, C, recommended, and D, other. A priorities were items that we need to address ASAP like fire hazards. That was about $1.3M. B items were about $6.9M. C, which included HVAC, was about $40.8M, and D was about $40.9M.

I would like to know more about the D level items that we were told are low priority and "aesthetic issues". I'm not sure that I am willing to put these needs ahead of true capacity needs in the district. These projects are not necessarily urgent.

Chris said...

Anonymous – That’s a fair point about the improvements; some are almost certainly more urgent and necessary than others, and I haven’t even tried to scrutinize them all closely. But if there are improvements that are less urgent or necessary, that could be a reason for pushing them off into the future, or even for cutting them entirely from the plan, but I’m still not sure it’s a good reason for subjecting them to bond votes. Most of the improvements have relatively low price tags, so we’d potentially end up having a dozen different bond votes on relatively minor items. I still think bond votes make more sense for big-ticket items.

If it were up to me, I’d be looking mostly at the new capacity projects. Some of them seem clearly more urgent than others: when there are schools with temporary classrooms, that means there’s a genuine overcrowding problem in the here and now. On the other hand, some of the projected overcrowding seems less immediate and more theoretical, especially when it’s based on the consultants’ new capacity numbers that clearly understate how many kids will actually be put into each building. The “needs” that grow entirely out of those unrealistic capacity numbers are the ones I’d consider controversial and be more likely to require bonds for.

I’d put the City High addition into that category, since the argument for it relies almost entirely on new, unrealistic conceptions of how many kids the building will hold. I think it should require a bond. One or two of the new elementary schools, or, alternatively, some of the proposed elementary additions, would also fall into that category, for the same reason.

Similarly, my “controversial” category would include capacity “needs” that stem entirely from the decision to tear down an existing school. Given that the plan includes lots of new elementary capacity, it’s hard to say which new projects are attributable to the decision to close Hoover. But I’d look at the most expensive new capacity first, since that’s where you could save the most money if Hoover stays open. The most expensive new capacity projects are the additions (as opposed to the improvements) to Longfellow and Mann: almost $16 million to get only 330 new seats. (By comparison, the new 500-student elementaries cost $14.5 million.) Even if you account for the savings you’ll get from not improving Hoover, we’d still be spending $11 million for no net increase in capacity at all. I think that deserves a bond vote, especially since the public has repeatedly made it clear that they don’t favor shifting to fewer, larger elementary schools just to save operating costs.

The big question, of course, is the new high school. On the one hand, it has already been at least partly the subject of a public vote (the 2007 SILO vote), and the board has already set aside a good chunk of money for it on that basis. On the other hand, it’s an enormous project, and will cost much more than the money than has been set aside for it – partly because the 1500-student high school in the plan is considerably bigger than the one that was discussed during the SILO vote. I support the new high school and would vote Yes on a bond for it, but given the sheer size of the project, I could see why it might end up requiring a bond, at least for the amount above what’s being set aside.

The real challenge for the board will be to somehow pull the district together so the projects that benefit one side of town will have enough support in other parts of town to get the 60% vote the bonds would need. They’re not starting off in a good place, having promised everyone everything, and having alienated many people over the Hoover closure. Maybe they’ll find a way to get creative about working out some kind of compromise that everyone can live with, but I can’t imagine what it would be. Keeping Hoover open would be a good start, since then there would be that much less new capacity to build.