Great Bend USD 428 officials hoping to win public approval for a bond election in 2020 held a community feedback meeting Tuesday at Great Bend Middle School. About two dozen people attended, including a few school administrators and staff, school board members, and Terry Wiggers, senior vice president of SJCF Architecture in Wichita, which helped USD 428 develop a master facilities plan.
Wiggers will make a presentation to the school board when it meets at 5 p.m. Monday at the District Education Center. It is expected to include ideas for a smaller bond question to put before voters in the spring.
At Tuesday night’s meeting, Wiggers talked about the results of a survey distributed last September and October after voters rejected two bond questions totaling nearly $45 million. The 556 respondents included 251 community patrons who voted for the bond issue, 246 who voted against it, and 59 who did not answer the survey question asking how they voted.
One thing school officials wanted to know was, “In your opinion, why didn’t the bond issue pass?” Some of the most common answers were:
• Taxes are too high.
• The cost is too high.
• Too much was grouped into one question. Break it down into more questions.
• There were unnecessary improvements in the plan. Too many “wants” vs. “needs.”
• Great Bend is a poor community or has a poor economy, and the City of Great Bend announced a tax increase right before the election.
• There was misinformation from uninformed non-participants, who had no idea what were the actual facts.
When asked if they would support specific pieces of the bond issue:
• 74% said they would support building FEMA storm shelters at all elementary schools, the PAC and the high school.
• 80% said they would support construction of controlled entrances at all buildings, where office reception has direct observation/control of admittance.
• 59% said they would support the expansion of preschool to all elementary schools in USD 428.
• 56% said they would support moving sixth grade from the elementary schools to the middle school, thus making more classroom space for preschool.
• 74% said they would NOT support keeping sixth grade at the elementary schools by reducing the playgrounds and building larger additions to accommodate the needed space for preschools.
• 65% said NO to the question, “If the sixth grade was to move to the middle school, would you support adding another gym at the middle school to accommodate the 50% increase in the number of students?”
• 70% said they would support improving student drop-off/pickup and parking at Lincoln, Jefferson, Riley and Great Bend Middle School. Wiggers said some people added this doesn’t go far enough, because similar improvements are needed at Eisenhower Elementary School.
• 56% said they would NOT support relocating the Transportation/Maintenance/Grounds building to the District Office site as part of the bond issue.
• 79% said they would NOT support installing an all-weather turf field to be used for PE classes, practices and outdoor classroom at the middle school.
• Respondents were split about 50-50 on the question, “Would you support replacing the 100-year-old portion of Washington Early Education Center with a new addition to be used for Special Education Services and the Parent-Teacher Resource Center?”
Overall, 76% said they would support a revised spring bond issue for facility improvements if it included changes resulting from community feedback and the survey. However, 89% said the estimated mill levy increase (14.5 mill net increase over the next 20 years) required to pay for the previous bond proposals is NOT a reasonable amount to pay for school improvements.
The complete bond survey results can be found on the district website, greatbendschools.net.
Two men in the audience mentioned that Great Bend Middle School used to hold three grades instead of two, and got by fine with just one gym. (Editor’s note: Harrison Junior High and Roosevelt Junior High had grades 7-9 before Roosevelt was closed and Harrison became GBMS). Now GBMS has two grades and two gyms, and the second bond question in September sought another gym to deal with the increase in students if sixth graders move in.
“We still think that when you increase this building by 50% of students, the gyms will be under a lot of stress for PE and so we’ll need another gym,” Wiggers said. “It wasn’t intended as an athletic gym.” Likewise, he said, the artificial turf field suggested for GBMS was unpopular by people who thought the district was spending more tax money on athletics, but it was actually for PE classes, or instruction.
But the audience members disagreed, and those who spoke up said it shouldn’t be part of a bond issue. “Didn’t we take up contributions for the Astroturf or for whatever they call it at the high school? ... That was all donations and private donations. ...”
“I think the impression the public gets is there’s a lot of athletics (in the proposal),” the audience member said. “If you look at those plans: competition gym, concessions, locker rooms, ... practice field, it shows bleachers ...”
Wiggers said some of those things were in the master plan, that extended beyond the bond proposal. In the future bond issue, they may not be included at all.
Community members said they are also interested in making sure some of the work that would come with a bond issue would go to local vendors. They want to know more about the number of students in the district and how preschools would be funded.
Wiggers asked the group what size of bond issue they thought the community would support. There was some indication from the survey that the district could pass a $20 million bond issue, but that wouldn’t cover much more than infrastructure improvements. Could $30-35 million find support?
Wiggers said it’s been a challenge reaching the public, even though voters said they want more detailed information on each issue. “You can see we put this (community meeting ) in the paper and we would have hoped there were 200 people here tonight.” If another attempt is made at a bond, supporters need to figure out how to get the word out.
One woman in the audience, Angela Delgado, suggested broadcasting programs or offering videos that people could download.
“Explain more thoroughly about pre-K and moving sixth grade, (about) Washington and all the infrastructure work.” And while social media are great for sharing information, she said, that’s not the best way to reach senior citizens.
The issue of wants vs. needs is important, she said.
“We keep talking about the property owners (and their tax increase) but I think something to not forget is there’s a lot of people in Great Bend making $10 an hour. You might not think $9.50 (a month in higher taxes) is a lot of money because you make more than that. But for a lot of these people, they only make $10.”
Above all, she said, the community needs to come together on a plan that people agree is in the best interest of students.
“A lot of the advertising that I heard and the comments in the social media made it sound that if you didn’t support this that you didn’t support children in this community. That is just the wrong strategy; you are dividing this community based on something you want. We all have to either agree to it or nothing's getting any better. We need to educate instead of trying to make people feel bad for not voting the way you want them to.”
After the meeting, Delgado summed up her thoughts on the meeting. “My whole point tonight is, include as many people as possible.”