A vote on the high school/auditorium

Monday, September 24, 2012

One has to admire the plucky optimism of the Storm Lake Board of Education, which has voted to declare a public election - on a plan it doesn't yet have and isn't even certain can be done - yet.

It is an epic leap of faith, to be certain, and much could go very wrong. On the other hand, nothing is gained when timid hearts venture nothing.

So here we are as a community, with a much-needed renovation of Storm Lake High School, and a long-desired performance auditorium, mostly in our own hands. How will you vote?

Last week in this space, we suggested that the $32 million plan that had been drawn up recently was, sadly, far out of the question, and pleaded with the school board to approach the situation differently - creating a project to fit the budget we can afford.

As it turns out, the board was coming to the same conclusion... that it had probably been a bit of a mis-calculation to turn architects loose with no mind to the reality of the district's financial limitation.

We're told that the architects have kindly agreed to make up a second plan apparently without additional charge, trying to determine what kind of project can be had for the cash we can muster - around $18 million.

Here's where the rub comes in. If the district wants to start building in 2013-14, it doesn't have time to wait around.

Why? Enough regulation to choke a giraffe, of course. There are only four days in the year that school districts are allowed to take such public votes on funding major school projects, and the only one remaining this year is December 4, the date the board boldly decided to go with. If the election is successful, the district will have to get the money into the certified budget in time to submit it in early April - miss that date, and construction would not be allowed to begin until the following fiscal year, losing precious time and no doubt pushing up the cost of building materials.

So this is it. Decision Day. We have one chance. (Or at least it would be a lengthy wait until we would be in position to try again.)

We will either pass the two measures in the Dec. 4 election, or we won't. No since getting picky and choosey either - both items on the ballot have to pass by a majority of voters. If either fail, there will be no school project. It is that simple, now.

No doubt people on both sides will spin the details in the weeks to come - but here is the unvarnished, cross-my-heart truth as best I can see it.

The SILO vote can be approved without it costing us anything - sort of. The penny sales tax gets collected 'til 2029 either way, all we're voting on is an extension of an existing contract saying our pennies can be spent on building school projects. If we don't so use it, then at some point in the 2020s, the last few years of the tax might get used for some property tax relief (there's the "sort of" cost). Clear as mud, I know.

The PPEL levy vote, now that baby is a tax, no getting around it. Vote yes, and basically you are jacking taxes up $1.17 per thousand of property valuation. The good news is, if there is such a thing as good news on taxes, you're probably not going to notice it all that much. The district had cut taxes this year by $1.83 per thousand (our earlier story Thursday said $2, but that figure was stated in error at the school board meeting.) So throw another $1.17 in the pot, and you're still likely paying less than you have in recent years prior to this one. (I say likely, because remember, changing valuation, rollback rates and actions by other government entities can effect your tax bill, too. More mud, sorry.)

On top of what election approval would bring in, the district has some $2 million banked from past SILO income, which brings the pot to $18 million - the figure the architect is supposed to tune a project to.

Whew. All that said, what in the heck do we do here?

Like most everyone, I have my own challenges in the form of a household budget deficit. Convincing me to vote to increase my own taxes would be like asking me to pass a kidney stone the size of a bowling ball. I'm not real eager for either experience.

But I have also spent a lot of time in that high school of ours - and it is OURS my friends, whether we have children there or not - and again unvarnished truth... it needs an update. Student numbers, technology, curriculum, classroom needs have all changed in a big way since that building was designed. I'm not talking prettifying here, I'm talking about providing the basic classrooms that will be needed, making better use of the space we have, making the building more flexible, efficient and welcoming.

This is just my opinion, but I see an auditorium as a need too, and not just a wish. Other places have managed it, why can't Storm Lake? Might not be the Sydney Opera House, but it can be good. I think we owe that to our young people who work so hard in music, drama, speech, art, and their teachers. A second gym, now, would be nice, but I think that can wait.

The way I look at it, if we can revamp our high school and build an auditorium, we're getting a lot for the relatively light tax pain we're going to feel. I'd call it a pinch, as opposed to an all-out mugging.

With that accomplished, we would have schools from preschool through elementary through middle school through high school and college/university campuses that would be the envy of the state. No one left out.

Are we increasing taxes? You bet, and don't let anyone tell you different. But look here - we can do this for the same penny sales tax we're going to be paying anyway, and with the PPEL change, perhaps for LESS property taxes for schools than we paid last year!

Pretty good bang for the buck, if you ask me.

I'm not here to tell you how to cast your votes, those decisions we each must make for ourselves.

I can tell you, and if I'm the first to say so, I'm tickled to do it, how I am going to vote.

If, and let's make that a BIG CAPITAL LETTERS IF, architects are able to come up with a decent plan for a good project to cover both auditorium and high school renovation within our $18 million budget, and IF due dilligence leads us to believe we can bid it out and actually get it done for that money, I'm all in.

Hopefully, for all of us, someone, somewhere, sometime, sacrificed a little bit on our behalf so we could get an education ourselves. It's time once again to pay that back a little, and do something for the generations to come.

They are OUR kids in OUR town and OUR district, and if we have a reasonable opportunity here...

I'll vote YES.