Supporters: New schools spur growth
“Taxes are going to go up regardless. Do you want taxes to go up and have nothing to show for it, or do we try to stabilize and reverse the trend?
We have good people in our schools, but we can’t compete with these other towns around us that have built new schools.”
-Iola High School math teacher Dianne Kauth
This is the first in a weekly series of articles on the proposed school bond issue to be decided by voters on April 2.
When Dr. Charles Wanker, chief of staff at Allen County Regional Hospital, interviews physicians as part of recruitment efforts, one of the first questions those who have children ask is, “What are the schools like?”
Wanker’s children attend USD 257 schools, so he touts the quality of the teachers and administrators. But he knows physicians likely aren’t going to meet those people before they decide whether to move to Iola.
“They’re just going to see the outside of the school building. What does that look like as a community, and what does that say about our commitment to schools?” Wanker asked.
It’s a familiar refrain, as voters begin to debate an April 2 school bond issue that calls for $25.5 million to build a new elementary school with options to build a new science and technology building at the high school campus for $7 million, and a new heating, ventilation and cooling system at the middle school for $2.8 million.
Jim Gilpin, a local banker who has doubts about whether voters will support building a new school, sees potential to improve the east side of Iola, where the elementary school likely would be built.
Thirty years ago, community leaders who hosted executives, economic development officials or other important people made sure to avoid that part of the city, Gilpin said. Industrial use 100 years ago, including zinc and lead smelting operations, contaminated the soil. The area remained blighted until U.S. 169 was rerouted and spurred development including a convenience store, movie theater, physician’s office complex, a bank and other businesses.
“It’s a far cry today from what it was,” Gilpin said. “If voters want to continue that effort in improvement, it would be in keeping with what’s been happening.”
Bill Maness, economic development director with Thrive Allen County, shared a similar story. When he worked for Haldex years ago, recruitment efforts would result in very promising interviews on a Friday. But on Monday, the candidate would call and say something like, “The job looks great but while I was interviewing, my family went around and looked at the community. It’s not going to work for us.”
“I can’t say schools were the specific issue,” Maness said. “But certainly anyone who reads economic development news or trade journals knows there’s always an emphasis on the condition of the schools and the reputation of the schools that can help or hurt the decision to move to a community.”
THE PROPOSED elementary school likely would be built near Kentucky and Monroe streets. The contaminated soil requires some degree of remediation, and the exact cost of that remains unknown. Leaders of the bond proposal say they’ll be able to provide more details before voters head to the polls in April.
The site is just one factor voters will consider, but it’s an issue that appears to spark a great deal of debate.
Supporters point to advantages like proximity to the communities of Gas and LaHarpe, and residential areas in Iola. They believe it could spur economic development in the area, as businesses want to locate close to the new school or new residents want to purchase homes nearby. They see a new elementary school as a showpiece in what was once a blighted neighborhood, and hope a science and technology building at the high school will provide new opportunities for students.
Opponents raise concerns about costs and safety, especially regarding the soil remediation. They worry about the added costs in property taxes. They wonder why the district can’t just fix existing schools, and don’t want to see those buildings abandoned and left to rot. They want to know how new facilities will improve education for students.
Those are some of the issues school bond supporters will need to address before the April 2 election. Committees plan to launch an educational and promotional campaign in the coming weeks.
The Register will publish a weekly series of articles to examine the pros and cons of the proposed school bond issue. The Register also is hosting a forum on March 12 at the Bowlus Fine Arts Center to give voters a chance to talk about the proposal.
IF VOTERS approve the bond issue, it’s likely the school will be located at the Kentucky and Monroe site, but it’s important to note the site may not work if the soil remediation or land acquisition costs come in above projections. (USD 257 officials already have started the process to secure purchase of the land and address soil remediation issues.)
From an economic development perspective, Maness sees the value of a new school and supports the school bond issue. He clarified he is sharing his personal opinion and not as a representative of Thrive, which has not taken a position on the matter.
“I recognize it will increase my personal property taxes, but I think the alternative is to continue to watch our population decline and my property will lose value,” said Maness, former Iola mayor.
“It’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. As the population declines, there are fewer people to share the tax burden. People move away, but we still have to maintain the infrastructure. So taxes go up, and more people move away because the taxes are so high.”
He points to a report from the Institute for Policy & Social Research at the University of Kansas, which used U.S. Census data to determine how many residents live in one county but work in another. A ratio higher than 1.0 indicates a county is attracting workers from other counties.
Allen County’s ratio is 1.10, which is higher than all surrounding counties except Coffey, home of Wolf Creek Generating Station.
Maness interprets the report with pros and cons. On the plus side, Allen County has jobs. Workers will drive for many miles to come here for a job. But, he said, they don’t seem to want to live here.
Boosting economic development requires an investment and commitment, Maness said.
Allen County’s population continues to decline, and one way to reverse that trend is to invest in things like schools, he contends.
“A rural lifestyle deserves to be protected, but it will only be protected if those who appreciate it are willing to put their resources into it.”
Iola High School math teacher Dianne Kauth agrees. Her job won’t directly be affected by the bond issue, and she no longer has children in the local school system.
“Taxes are going to go up regardless,” Kauth said. “Do you want taxes to go up and have nothing to show for it, or do we try to stabilize and reverse the trend? We have good people in our schools, but we can’t compete with these other towns around us that have built new schools.”
She believes a new school not only would spur development in the area, it also would allow the district to host sports tournaments and events that would boost the economy.
“To me, it’s a win-win,” Kauth said.
This artist’s rendering, provided SJCF Architects, shows what a new high school science building in Iola could look like.
GILPIN, on the other hand, echoes many voters’ concerns. He looks at past history and sees a reluctance by voters to support new schools.
He has worked on school bond campaigns before but was not part of the steering committee that developed the current bond proposal.
Historically, voters approved plans to renovate the high school in 1988 and the middle school in 1993, and approved additions to Jefferson, Lincoln and McKinley in 1980. Additions at Lincoln and a new science building at the high school were approved in 1963.
But a plan to build new elementary and high schools failed in 2014. Similarly, a bond to build a new high school failed in 1985, as did a plan to build a new high school and add on to elementary schools in 1978.
The last time voters agreed to build a new school was in 1976, when a bond passed to build a new elementary at LaHarpe. In Iola, voters last approved a new school in 1949, when they replaced McKinley.
“Voters support renovation, but they don’t want to build new,” Gilpin said.
As president of Community National Bank and Trust, Gilpin doesn’t want to take a public position either for or against the school bond issue. But as a former member of the USD 257 school board and a community leader, he appreciates the value a new school can bring to a community.
He also understands why taxpayers hesitate to approve such a costly endeavor.
“We’re part of southeast Kansas and this part of the state has a lot of poverty,” he said.
Indeed, the U.S. Census Bureau reports 16.7 percent of Allen County residents fall below the poverty level, higher than the state rate of 11.9 percent. The median household income between 2013 and 2017 was $43,031, well below the state’s median of $55,477.
Under the current school bond proposal, the owner of a $70,000 house would see a property tax increase of $10.48 a month to pay for the new elementary school. If voters approve all three aspects of the proposal, the cost would be $14.17 a month.
“Historically, voters in Iola just haven’t supported new schools,” Gilpin said. “That’s not to say we can’t build new or on a new site, but it underscores the importance of having a comprehensive voter education effort.”