A tale of two bonds

By Brian Knox | Published Wednesday, May 27, 2015

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In many ways, the two local school bond packages on the May 9 ballot were very similar.

And yet, the end result was very different.

Nearly 75 percent of voters in the Decatur school district approved Proposition 1, while just over 61 percent approved Proposition 2.

The numbers were almost completely opposite in Chico, as six out of 10 votes went against the bond’s passage.

Brian Knox

Brian Knox

Many of the items in both schools’ bond packages were nearly the same. Both included money for security upgrades districtwide, including the installation of cameras and card reader systems on doors. Money in both bonds would have provided motion sensor lighting as a way to save on energy costs. Older buildings would receive new roofs and HVAC units. New buses were also included in both bonds.

Both also included money to build something completely new.

In Decatur’s case, it was a $3.5 million indoor, multipurpose practice facility. Chico’s new construction would have been a $2.1 million ag facility to replace the current aging facility and relocate it closer to the high school.

If there could be single items that could have sunk the two bonds, these two would probably have been it. In Decatur’s case, the board decided to make the practice facility a stand-alone item in Proposition 2.

I’m thinking Chico may now be wishing it had placed its ag facility in a separate proposition as well.

Probably the most common complaint heard about the Chico bond, as with most bonds, is that it included some “wants” instead of needs.

I think the ag facility can be used as an example. The need for a new ag facility seems to be legitimate, but the $2.1 million price tag probably seemed more like a “want” for many voters.

It probably didn’t help that Decatur, a much larger school in terms of student population, just recently built its own ag facility, which includes not only a place to house animals but also a show arena, a room to store feed, another room to wash and clip animals, a couple of small storage rooms and a classroom, at a cost of $810,000.

Chico’s bond problems seemed to start from the very night the election was called.

The vote to call the bond election passed by a narrow margin, 4-3. If you are a voter who is “on the fence” about the decision, seeing that nearly half the board did not want to call the bond doesn’t move the needle into the “for” range.

Another challenge facing Chico was the fact that the bond was expected to raise the tax rate 11 cents. That’s a pretty hefty increase, no matter what district you are in. By comparison, Decatur’s voters were looking at about a 4-cent increase.

In many ways, Chico finds itself in much the same position Decatur ISD was in 2009 after a bond issue to address improvements to existing facilities failed. After that election, the district had to prioritize the needs and address what it could with existing funds.

Perhaps if Chico can pay for some of the most pressing improvements with available funds, the district might be able to come back to the voters with a smaller bond package that won’t require more than a 10-cent increase in the tax rate.

It’s also possible voters might support a bond package that includes a new ag facility.

When the estimates for Decatur’s new ag facility came in higher than expected, two factors seemed to help push that project forward.

First, the district worked with the low bidder and architects to scale down the project until it fit their budget.

And second, supporters of the ag program made it a point to speak out in support of a new facility. Parents of ag students or former students spoke at several board meetings leading up to the approval of the project, each describing in detail the exact needs for the facility.

Public support for a project – whether it is paid for with or without a bond – is key to its success.

Vocal support by Chico ag students and parents for a new ag facility could be critical for making that project a reality.

Whether that is part of another bond package or not remains to be seen.

Brian Knox is the Messenger’s special projects manager.

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