The community team that helped Great Bend USD 428 study building needs and promote a bond proposal that failed earlier this year hasn’t given up on improving schools, Superintendent Khris Thexton said. There will be another meeting in the next couple of weeks that could lead to asking voters to pass a bond issue in 2020.
“We’re talking about possibly an April bond election,” Thexton said when he spoke to the Kiwanis Club on Wednesday. He was invited to address the question, “where do we go from here since the bond issue failed?”
If voters approve a bond in April, construction could begin that summer.
It cost the school district about $20,000 to conduct a mail-ballot election last summer, Thexton said. After the election ended on Sept. 5, voters had rejected an initiative for $41.75 million that would have addressed safety concerns including building 10 storm shelters – one for every school, created free preschools at each of Great Bend’s public elementary schools, moved sixth graders into Great Bend Middle School, built a new wing to house sixth graders at GBMS, built a bus barn and maintenance building on the grounds by the District Education Center, and more. A second question also failed; it sought an additional $3.12 million for a new gym at GBMS if the first question passed.
Since then, district officials have done surveys and tried to find out why the bond issue failed and what sort of proposal voters would approve.
The district can put a question before voters once every calendar year. Thexton said they’ve talked about another special election but voters would come to polls or request ballots in the traditional way instead of every registered voter receiving a mail-in ballot. That will cost about $10,000, Thexton said.
The district could add a special question to the November 2020 general election ballot at no cost, but that would delay improvements by another year, assuming the question passes.
According to the survey, the No. 1 reason voters thought the bond issue failed in September was that taxes are already too high. Some thought the taxes required to pay for nearly $45 million in bonds were too high and others thought taxes in the Great Bend community as a whole are too high.
Kiwanis members had questions about the economy here. Thexton said 70% of USD 428 students now receive a free lunch or a reduced-price lunch (40 cents instead of $1.80 per meal). Eligibility for free and reduced-price meals is based on family size and income, and is also used as an indicator of students who are at-risk for poverty. Six years ago Great Bend was in the “mid-sixties” (i.e., about 65% free or reduced-price meals) and then it rose to 68%. “This year we bumped to 70%.”
While Hays is closer to 30%, Liberal, Dodge City and Garden City are in the 70-80% range, Thexton said.
Another objection to the last bond question was that voters felt too many things were grouped into one question. “They wanted more options vs. a group question,” Thexton said.
What would voters support?
When asked what kind of tax increase voters would support, those who voted “no” in September suggested $0 to $8 a month. Those who voted “yes” would support as much as $25 a month.
The passage of both bond questions in September would have increased the mill levy by 14.5 mills. That would have raised taxes on a home valued at $87,500 – the median value in Great Bend – by about $12.60 a month and for a $100,000 home it would raise property taxes by about $13.90 a month.
Some people have suggested passing a sales tax instead of a property tax. That was done in Liberal. The problem with that option, Thexton said, is that sales taxes for district projects requires cooperation between the city and school district. Since cities typically levy their own sales taxes, “they don’t want to give that up,” Thexton said. “It (sales tax) also fluctuates.”
Great Bend got approval last July to seek its bond election. The Kansas State Board of Education has an annual cap on how much can be levied for school bonds across the state. Although some bond issues passed this week, Thexton said there is still money available under the cap for an April attempt. If the cap is met before Great Bend announces an election, the district would have to wait until next July to request approval for another bond election.