By CRISTINA JANNEY
Hays USD 489 school board candidates were asked Tuesday night about a proposed $78.5 million school bond that will be up for a vote Nov. 7.
A candidate forum was hosted at the Fort Hays State University Memorial Union by the Hays Area Chamber of Commerce and the FHSU Student Government Association. The four participants are vying for three open seats on the board.
Kevin Daniels, a minister at the Hays Christian Church and a write-in candidate, focused on the importance of storm shelters and secure entrances that would be added if the bond passes.
“To not have storm shelters at our schools is unacceptable,” Daniels said. “I heard someone saying earlier today only one student has ever died at a school during a tornado. That is appalling to me because what if that was your student? What if that was your child? We need storm shelters in our schools.”
Daniels also noted the schools need to be Americans with Disabilities Act compliant. Roosevelt Elementary School has a storm shelter, but it is in the basement, which makes it inaccessible to children in wheelchairs.
“We have to make sure we are providing an equal education to all students regardless of their abilities,” he said.
Daniels also said schools need to hope for the best and prepare for the worst and that means secure entrances at all schools.
Mike Walker is the director of the Docking Institute for Public Affairs and was a member of the Community Vision Team that created the current bond issue. He noted the Hays school district has not had a successful bond issue since 1992 when a small bond was passed for repairs and HVAC upgrades for several schools.
“While nobody wants to increase their own taxes,” he said, “I think we have to realize that is time for a new bond to be passed.”
Walker said this bond is totally different from the $94 million bond that failed in 2016. This is a 30-year bond with improvements that will last 40 to 50 years, he said.
Lance Bickle, current school board president, said the most important part of the bond is the education piece.
“As Mr. Walker alluded to — taxes. Nobody likes them, and I am right there with you. I don’t like taxes any more than the next person. I also think we need to look at this as a long-term investment in our community,” he said.
Bickle also noted Hays has not had a bond in many years, whereas peer districts have had two, three or four bonds.
The vision team that put the bond together listened to input about school needs from community members, parents and teachers, he said.
Sophia Rose Young is a parent of two and the donor communications manager at Developmental Services of Northwest Kansas.
“I really believe the district does need a bond,” she said. “What that bond looks like … if this is the bond or not, I don’t know. That is up to the community vote. I think the board made the right decision to put it in front of the community and let them decide because the Vision Team did put a lot of energy into it.”
Young noted the state has placed a limit on amount of bond debt that can be issued in the state each year. Hays is exempt from that law for this bond because it has been more than 25 years since its last bond issue. The bond is large, but the district might not be able to secure funding in the future if the district split the work into two or more smaller bonds.
The candidates were also asked what they thought the board should do to address facilities needs if the bond does not pass.
Walker said the board is already taking steps to address some facilities needs separate from the bond issue.
“If the bond does not pass, there are going to have to be some hard decisions what to do because the money will have to come out of capital outlay,” he said.
One of the issues the bond would address would be more classroom space. An alternative to building expansions could be temporary classrooms. The cafeteria at the middle school will still need to be expanded because it was constructed to handle a great deal fewer students than it is handling today.
When Bickle was elected to the board four years ago, he said his priorities were long-range planning, budgeting and maintenance. He said the board is addressing maintenance issues and will continue to do so if the bond fails.
“I did not think it was responsible from a board perspective to think that we were going to pass a bond or if it failed that it was just going to fix all our problems,” he said. “I really felt we needed to get a maintenance plan in place and to begin working on things regardless of what happened with the bond and proving we were fiscally responsible with the taxpayers’ money.”
Some of the projects the board has approved were upgrades to the middle school HVAC system and upgrades to LED lighting at the high school.
“Having said that,” Bickle added, “there is a long list of things that need to be addressed in this district, and we can eventually get to them, but I can’t tell you when that will be because we only have so much money each year to go around to do that. We need to put that toward the most dire needs possible. I think that is something we are continuing to do, and I think we need to continue to do regardless if (the bond) passes or not.”
Young said she believes, if this bond fails, the district would come back with another bond. She said the district would have to re-evaluate maintenance if the bond fails, because some of the needs are tied to the bond at this time.
Daniels said if the bond fails, the district needs to get in a room with people who voted no and ask them why they didn’t vote for the bond.
“If we keep coming up with these great plans, and we try to communicate the benefits of the bond and all the benefits of the things that we are trying to do without actually listening to people and listening to the voters,” he said, “we are going to be in the same boat a year down the road and a year down the road and a year down the road every time we bring up a bond.”
The general election is Nov. 7. Advance voting will begin Oct. 23.
See one-on-one video interviews with the school board candidates Thursday through Saturday on the Hays Post.