Iolan: Let citizens, not school district, shape bond initiative

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October 24, 2017 - 12:00 AM

After an uncommonly bitter failed school bond campaign in the fall of 2014, USD 257 put its infrastructure plans on hold for the next couple of years. In the spring of this year, however, the school board convened a series of “facilities planning” meetings — led by current board president Dan Willis — with the goal of identifying the district’s next building solutions. Then, earlier this month, the board gave the Wichita-based architectural firm Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey license to create and implement a master plan that will, in the hopes of USD 257, pave the way for a successful bond initiative. That plan is moving forward apace.
But memories of 2014 are long and some in the community are signaling caution, and warning the board — in the name of transparency and maximum community inclusiveness — not to repeat their failed stratagems of the past.
David Toland, a father of two school-age children in the district and a key opponent of 2014’s bond initiative, was one such voice. 
Toland compared the contentious failed school bond campaign of three years ago with the happier, resident-led bond initiative for the new county hospital in 2010. The latter bond campaign, explained Toland, which passed with 72 percent of the vote, was “an open, transparent process driven by the community.”
While the school bond campaign suffered for being entirely “designed, planned and implemented by the school district.”
“Yes,” continued Toland, “there was a community group that stepped forward to try to win the election, but that was after the decision on what to do had already been made…by the school district.”
There are lessons embedded in that failed campaign, said Toland, from which it would be folly not to learn. And yet, said Toland, turning his attention at last to the bond issue at hand: “[With] all due respect, bringing in out-of-town consultants to pass a bond, and saying that a group that’s been meeting more or less by invitation only for six months and that’s dominated by school-related people is a community group, is awfully similar to what happened last time.”
Hiring a firm like SJCF to educate the public on an upcoming bond issue and to streamline the facilities-planning process, while having the veneer of public inclusiveness, Toland seemed to argue, actually delimits the range of choices on offer to the district’s residents, because it’s based on a conversation that did not include the broadest reaches of the community.
Whatever your view of what the district should do to improve its facilities, said Toland — whether it should build new schools or make efforts to renovate its current buildings (Toland’s view) — that opinion is valid. “[But],” he stressed, “it’s too late when you only get to express your opinion in the middle of a bond issue campaign — when your only choices are marking ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on the ballot. That’s how you tear a community apart.”
“But it’s not too late [for the district],” counseled Toland. “You can stop this process. Call a community meeting. Ask non-school-related people to lead it. Hold it somewhere other than a school facility. Let that group discuss their goals for education. See who would work on a task force that will meet, in public, over the course of next year to study options. Let that group make a recommendation on architects after interviewing several firms in public. And then, after an open, public process of taking input, let that group make a recommendation to you, the school board, about what should be on the ballot.”
Toland explained that he is not against a new bond; in fact, he wants “desperately to vote ‘yes’ on a bond issue.” And he thinks the community, too, could be persuaded to vote “yes” — “if it’s the right plan, and if the process is done right.”
“What divided us last time wasn’t whether to do something about facilities; it was what to do about facilities. But,” Toland told the board in closing, “you need to accept that it may not be the bond issue the school board ideally wants. But for the sake of the kids, and the community as a whole, let’s get the process right this time so we can get something done without destroying our community in the process.”
The board did not offer immediate comment in response to Toland’s remarks but, later in the meeting, Superintendent of Schools Stacey Fager announced that he would be meeting with SJCF on Wednesday at the district office: “I feel like [SJCF is] going to be holistic in their approach and their goal is to get that community support — ‘What will the community buy into? What will the community support as far as a bond issue going forward?’”

IN OTHER news, the board:
* Approved an incentive program in the high school that will reward certain students — those who maintain a perfect attendance record, a passing grade and a clean school rap sheet — with early dismissal on certain Fridays.
* Was briefed on the first round of random high school drug testing. Results were 100 percent negative (i.e., the test results were clean).
* Was reminded by Fager of a few of the targets in the district’s “2016-2019 Strategic Plan.” Target goals include improving students’ academic and extracurricular engagement; improving students’ soft skills; improving the district’s partnerships with parents and with the broader community; bearing down on college and career readiness; improving district facilities (see above); and other targets to be discussed at future meetings.
* Was presented with a slideshow of the student-conceived, student-designed murals that now adorn the walls in the boys and girls restrooms at Iola Middle School.

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