A conversation with Meeker School Board President Mary Strang:
Q: Do you feel like the board has made its case in its $24 million bond initiative to build a new elementary school and make improvements to the middle school and high school?
Answer: The school board and the Citizens For Meeker Schools campaign committee have been arduously making a strong case in support of ballot questions 3A and 3B. Information booths at community and athletic events, letters to the editor, advertisements in the Rio Blanco Herald Times and multiple presentations are some of the ways we’ve carried our message. Last week, a large group of volunteers walked the town to promote more understanding about the campaign and to encourage people to vote. Additionally, campaign yard signs have recently become evident.
Q: In your conversations with people, what have you found are the most compelling arguments?
A: The most compelling arguments about the bond campaign are the safety and health issues in all three buildings as well as those fundamental to a positive learning environment. Included are poor air quality/ventilation, dangerous drop off and pick up of students at the elementary school, overcrowded conditions with no ability to expand, inadequate playground space, poor lighting, inadequate electrical systems for the 21st century and uneven heat. Do we not have an obligation to offer our kids the best education possible in a safe, positive learning environment?
Q: How would you describe the board’s outlook on the election: Is it optimistic? Is it confident? Is it uncertain?
A: We’re giving the bond campaign our all and are gratified by the response we’ve received. As a result, we do feel positive about the election. However, we recognize that one can never presume that the mission is accomplished and will continue to work hard at promoting the ballot issues until Nov. 4. Everyone is certainly entitled to their opinion, but our goal is to ensure that they have the necessary facts with which to make their decision. The school district/board and the campaign committee are committed to being 100 percent transparent and solicit any and all questions.
Q: How much of a factor do you think the economic times will have on the election? Energy companies would pay 80 percent or better, right? Is that a compelling argument for doing this now, plus the rising costs of construction?
A: Some say we should make oil and gas foot the bill for all our needed improvements. However, as you know, they will pay more than 80 percent of the 20-year bond debt retirement as well as a like percentage of the mill levy override. Additionally, they’ve contributed $60,000 toward the cost of the two modular units/temporary classrooms at the elementary school. As a community we have to appreciate what they do for us as well as be responsible for our own needs. It’s a fact that some of the energy interests would like to help our schools more, but they want to see evidence of community support first. I have to agree with their point of view.
Many don’t realize that in order to access major grants and other philanthropic financing, it is necessary to be able to offer match dollars and to demonstrate community support for a project. In terms of our needy schools, a successful bond election would meet both criteria. In turn, it will allow us to access funding for those capital needs that will not be covered by the $24 million bond.
The time is right — and we feel the need is extreme. As you point out, construction costs go up almost daily. Our projected costs have risen 40 percent (from $175/square foot to $250/square foot) since 2007. Our need isn’t going to dissipate, and waiting isn’t an option. Should we not be successful, we’ll do the best we can with what we have and, ultimately, try again. We owe it to our kids to persist. I don’t think the country’s current fiscal crisis should impact the vote for ballot issues 3A and 3B on Nov. 4. Interest rates are low and the actual cost is very reasonable for the average homeowner — at $7.50/month. As someone pointed out, this is comparable to two Starbucks coffees a month — a small price to pay for a $24 million improvement for our kids’ education.
Neither Neenan, nor RBC Capital Markets, the bonding company with whom we’re working, will get paid unless the bond issue passes. The only monetary obligations the district will have is the $9,000 plus due Neenan for their facility needs assessment and preliminary design, and the cost of special legal counsel we’ve engaged to draft the ballot issues, etc.
Q: Lastly, are you comfortable the board did everything it could to assess and consider the options and moved forward with the best possible plan?
A: A question which has frequently surfaced is, why has the district allowed its facilities to get in such a state of disrepair? We are holding school in a building which is 70 years old because it has been well maintained. There comes a time, however, when mechanical systems and a building’s infrastructure have to be replaced. Maintenance alone is not adequate. In the case of the elementary school, the facility needs study demonstrated that renovating was not cost effective. Additionally, there is no space for expansion, the building’s foundation will not support a second story and the removal of encapsulated asbestos would make the cost prohibitive. On the other hand, upgrading mechanical systems in the high school and middle school and replacing the middle school roof is a good investment and will extend the useful life of these two buildings. If we’re successful on Nov. 4, we’ll build an excellent elementary school and make the most critical improvements in the middle and high schools.
I feel as a district, we’ve approached our circumstances responsibly. In 2007, the school district put a district-wide facility needs study out for bid. The bids we received were in the $80,000-90,000 range — certainly more than the district felt it could spend. Through various contacts we discovered Neenan Archistruction — a design/build firm. Their cost for such a facility needs assessment was a little over $9,000. The district researched their references in great detail and, ultimately, engaged them to do what has been done to date. It has taken a year’s study of a district-wide facility needs assessment, a voter survey conducted by Harstad Strategic Research, Inc. and, finally, two months of safety, educational and cost analysis in order to choose an appropriate site for the proposed new elementary school. We feel the process has been thorough and productive.
If we’re fortunate and our two ballot questions pass on Nov. 4, the specific design process will start immediately. Permits will be secured from the state over the following six months and hopefully ground can be broken in May/June. Thirteen months later (fall 2010), the new school will open and work will be completed in the middle and high schools.
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