SMSD Board of Education candidates on the issues: Views on proposed bond issue for facilities upgrades

Demolition of Brookwood Elementary. The school was rebuilt using proceeds from the last bond issue.

Last month, we asked our readers what issues they wanted to hear the candidates running for local office address ahead of this fall’s local elections primary. Based on the input we received, we developed a five-item questionnaire for candidates running for the Shawnee Mission Board of Education.

Today, we publish the candidates’ responses to item four:

The district is considering a new bond issue that would in part pay for the demolition and reconstruction of three schools in the near-term, with the potential for other building replacements possible in the mid-term. Do you support the idea of a new bond issue that would in part fund building replacements? What process should the district be using to identify priority projects for the bond funds?

School District Member 1 (SM North area)

Brian Koon

I support the proposed bond issue.

My children attend Crestview Elementary, and when that building was being considered for a rebuild, I learned that major renovations (such as increasing accessibility, the potential need for asbestos remediation, etc.) on older buildings tend to cost almost as much as razing and building a new school on the same site. Additionally, maintenance of older buildings is generally more expensive than maintenance on newer buildings. If a building needs to be replaced, we need to replace it.

The process for identifying buildings with the highest need is a different matter. Current condition, and projected need for an increased capacity within a given attendance area, are two important factors. Other considerations include: current lack of accessibility for students with physical disabilities, unsuitable classroom size, not having enough classrooms to meet needs for having onsite pre-K classrooms, etc.

The bottom line is the district should not be spending money renovating newer schools unless they have developed major problems. We should focus our spending where we can get the highest return on our investment.

With regard to some recent builds, I hear from parents and teachers that the quality of the schools leaves something to be desired. That’s the last thing we need. When we build new schools, we have to do it right. We need to build schools to last.

To help address concerns about quality, I believe the district should give preference to construction companies that employ union workers. People in unions demonstrate a high degree of expertise in their trade, insist on appropriate working hours, high worksite safety standards, and earn fair wages which often go to families in our district. After all, we’re talking about the places where our children will spend most of their waking hours, and I’m not interested in companies who try to get the job done with a cheaper and less-skilled workforce. I would much rather pay a little more at the outset than have to pay for major repairs after just a few years.

We get what we pay for.

Sara Goodburn (incumbent)

Yes, I would be supportive of an upcoming bond issue to fund both targeted building replacements as well as identified improvements to infrastructure. I believe the district should be using a collaborative approach to identify potential projects. Professional district staff has the duty of evaluating needs and providing the preliminary list of identified projects that they see as most critical to address in the near-term. They do so after receiving independent analysis of the current state of facilities from architects, engineers and other professionals. Then, it is district staff’s duty to seek out the opinions of all staff, parents, student and patrons for input, suggestions and clarification. Once all input has been received and evaluated, the superintendent and his staff should work towards presenting the projects identified to the board of education for their input and ultimate approval.

Lisa Feingold

I support the idea of a new bond issue. I am encouraged by the work of the District Facilities Task Force, as well as Superintendent Fulton’s stated goals around transparency and inclusion of the public in meetings, and I am looking forward to attending the SM North forum. Regarding building replacement versus rehabilitation or modernization: It’s my position that if the cost of making the facility safe for students and staff exceeds the cost of demolishing and rebuilding, then, yes, I support reconstruction of sites. Furthermore, if the sites are to be rebuilt from the ground up, there should be express commitment to make new buildings LEED certified, and include gender-neutral restrooms for students and staff.

The district’s process should include opportunities for meaningful input from the stakeholder community of parents, students, and staff. The process should seek to move beyond transparency toward true inclusivity. For example, if community stakeholders identify priorities not included in the preliminary list of projects, those options need to be considered, explored, and addressed. Additionally, stakeholders must have the ability to influence which projects are approved for expenditure; for example, school building improvements will be prioritized over athletic facilities upgrades.

School District Member 3 (SM South area)

Brian Brown

During my time serving on the 2014 Facilities Committee, I was able to understand how all primary and secondary facilities are “not created equal”. The most shocking item that I learned was that not all schools had a functioning kitchen. Many schools had their food items prepared offsite then had them delivered to the schools that requisitioned those meals. I don’t believe any individual would want young students to have this experience this on an ongoing basis. That issue was addressed but there are still many issues that create inequities among facilities, which a bond issue would be able to address.

I do support the idea of a new bond issue that could partially fund bringing facilities “up to date.” With the age of many of our facilities, there is also the question of everyday maintenance. In some cases if you were to draw out ongoing costs for upkeep and repairs, it may make more sense to erect a new facility [or partial structure] to save future dollars. There would also be a financial benefit to the district as they would be able to apply the amortized costs of any new construction against their financials.

Through community educational efforts, bond issues historically in the Shawnee Mission School District pass by wide margins; however, I believe right now what patrons [and tax payers, many of whom do not have children attending school in the district] want is transparency and the understanding of “how does this make our community better.”

I believe that we have the capacity at the district level to provide an accurate assessment of what needs the district has and how to prioritize those needs; however, when the integrity of the information is being challenged by stakeholders a potential alternative method may need to be considered. In order to ensure stakeholder buy-in, my recommendation would be to have a feasibility study conducted by an independent firm. With the needs assessment being conducted by an outside entity that doesn’t have “skin in the game,” stakeholders would be able compare and contrast those recommendations against the district wants / needs list. I feel that this approach would be viewed as satisfactory to those being asked to fund the needed improvement within the district.

Jessica Hembree

Facilities conversations should be ongoing and not limited to the run-up to a bond vote. I applaud the board’s recent efforts to create a standing facilities and finance committee that will provide ongoing advice about our facilities needs.

I believe bonds are an appropriate strategy for financing school buildings. It is incumbent on the school board to make a strong case to voters about why a bond is needed and to ensure that funds are spent effectively.

Before launching a bond campaign, I believe the school board and district staff must seek to understand the cost effectiveness of renovating versus tearing down and rebuilding schools and make that information publicly available. The school board must ask patrons up-front about their priorities in making facilities investments and must clearly explain the process for making decisions about which schools to renovate or rebuild.

When we do decide to rebuild or renovate schools, we should prioritize making them more energy efficient. This investment will free up our limited operating funds to be spent on teachers and classrooms instead of utility bills. Energy efficient schools will help reduce pollution and make our community healthier for our kids.

We must also ensure that new buildings meet the needs of students, teachers and the community. Our community wants schools that meet meet modern safety and security standards, support today’s teaching methods, and are accessible on bike and by foot. Each school and its community are unique and I hope that building leadership, site councils and surrounding community members can provide input into new buildings.

School District Member 5 (SM Northwest area)

Jamie Borgman

A strategic task force has been created to study this issue. I am glad to see the group will meet publicly in order to create transparency. The Shawnee Mission community, including area business, has always been extremely supportive of providing the students of our district what they need to be successful, and that includes a conducive learning environment.

The Shawnee Mission School District is celebrating its 50th year. Just like when you own a home, things wear out and need replacing. We need to be sure we are doing everything we can to give students in the Shawnee Mission School District the tools they need to be successful in life, and that includes a learning environment that benefits ALL students.

Devin Wilson

I support the work being done to modernize district facilities and put the needs of our students at the forefront of our decision-making. Accessibility, safety and energy efficiency should be large drivers in prioritizing which buildings get demolished and rebuilt, and which ones are more cost effective to be remodeled. Ensuring that there is equity across the district is important, where access to programs within buildings isn’t determined by zip code. Any bond proposed should include information about what was prioritized in the previous bond, and highlight the improvements and importance of those completed projects.

At the Monday, September 9 school board meeting, our superintendent laid out plans for the process. I applaud the creation of a District Facilities Task Force, and the host of public forums scheduled this fall. This will allow opportunity for the public to learn more and provide feedback for the district to use as a guide in decision-making. Here is a link if you would like to learn more.

This is a great step in the right direction in terms of transparency and inclusion of the public in the process.
Tomorrow we’ll publish the candidates’ responses to item three:

There have been two high profile incidents involving guns in the district this year, with a shooting near Highlands Elementary and students bringing guns to school at Hocker Grove. Some parents have expressed frustration with what they perceive as a lack of communication about those incidents. Was the district’s response to these incidents adequate in your estimation? If not, what should be done to improve communication about such incidents?