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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Alta school vote 'too close to call'

Monday, November 26, 2001

'A big day for the community' as debate climaxes.

In the Alta school buildings this week, the mood is "cautiously optimistic," as the December 4 bond issue vote for a pivotal elementary and middle school addition draws close.

"I see this as a very important opportunity for our school system and our community. December 4 is going to be a big day for Alta," Superintendent Fred Maharry told the Pilot-Tribune.

The project is the talk of the town, although not all agree.

"I'm hearing a lot of positive things, and also some opposition. A lot of people have told me that they will support this plan and they will go and vote for it, but honestly the opinions are a mixed bag, as some still seem to have concerns with it," Maharry said.

"I think it's too close to call," the superintendent said of the bond issue vote, which will require a 60 percent "super-majority" approval rate.

Those who support the plan seem to approve of the changes made from previous plans, the reduction in cost from previous failed votes, and the unique mixture of financing to pay for it, Maharry suggests.

"They like that it is a different plan. We got a lot of community people involved in reexamining the needs and developing a plan in response that really focuses on classroom space. The committee spent a year on it," he said.

In the process, the bond issue cost was reduced from the $4.575 plan that failed with voters most recently to the current $3.4 million bond issue, despite rising construction costs over the time.

The new plan is paid for with a combination of property taxes, a proposed income surtax and private contributions. The contributions already total $40,000, with a goal of $125,000 and a promise from the city to match donations to that maximum, on a dollar-for-dollar basis.

Maharry is aware of no other Iowa school building project being partially funded by such a community fund drive and matching city donation. The combination means that the cost burden would not rest only on the property taxpayer, he said.

The need is hardly a matter of debate, supporters feel. A lack of classroom space is hindering the effort of the educators, but other needs are somewhat less visible. "For example, there is only one set of restrooms in the elementary building. While students are spending time waiting in line to get into a restroom, they are losing out on valuable minutes of learning time.

The major point of contention seems to be the gym in the plan, as with previous failed votes.

The gym accounts for about $1.3 million of the project. Some feel it is not needed, others aren't comfortable with the cost, Maharry admits.

Without it, however, the district will only have one gym in the high school building to continue to serve all grade levels. The superintendent also fears injury to young students as the elementary multi-purpose/cafeteria room is pressed into service as a gym, despite the equipment that cannot be easily removed.

The gym also represents an opportunity for the community, Maharry feels. "I can see us having something going on from 6 a.m. until school begins, and then again after the school day. We would like to use the gym as a wellness center for the community - a place they could go to walk or jump on an exercise bike or do other fitness activities whenever possible."

The plan also calls for the school expansion's media center to double as a community library, which would be open to the public 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., even during school. The public would also have access to the computer lab. "I think it would be great to see many people come into the school environment, and even during school hours, I think the interaction between students and community members in this building would be a good thing for both groups," Maharry said/

The strategy of the expansion plan's supporters has been simply to inform the public and hope that they recognize the needs, Maharry said.

"We have sent a brochure out to everyone, and a set of frequently asked questions and the answers. We held a community meeting and had about 70 people. Our goal now is to have as many presentations as we can to let people know what they will be voting on.

"We believe we have a very good proposal for people, one that we think is very affordable. Nobody likes to pay more taxes, but what we have here is a great opportunity for Alta," Maharry said.

Thanks to a fortunate combination of circumstances, the project could be built at this time with the taxpayers feeling little impact.

The district projects that the levy rate would actually go down even if the bond issue is passed. By 2005, the levy rate with the project would still be 18 cents lower than it is today, and it will continue to drop from there.

The onset of tax income from the wind turbine project in the Alta area is a large factor in that trend. This year alone, the turbines will reduce local residents' property tax levy by 40 cents per $1,000 of valuation, offsetting the impact of the income surtax.

At the same time, lower interest rates and an economy that has created a competitive environment among builders means that the district stands to get a lot of construction for the dollar, the superintendent said.

The need isn't going to go away, regardless of the results of the vote.

"We want to work with people regardless of how the bond issue goes. If it passes, we will begin to build by June of 2001, and hope to complete it within 15 months for the fall of 2002. "If it doesn't pass, I'm sure we will go to work on it again, and I'm sure we will go back through the committee to take another look at it."

About 30 Alta area citizens made up the committee that ultimately proposed the new school plan. "You couldn't ask for a harder-working, more thoughtful group. They stayed with us all of these months, saying. 'We want to get this done.' And then we were really pleased that the school foundation stepped up to the challenge and offered to help," Maharry said.

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