Two former members of the Storm Lake Board of Education are expressing concerns with the proposal for $17.5 million performance auditorium and high school renovation plans set to go before voters on December 4.
"We're not opposed to the product, we're concerned about the process," said Tom McClinton, who was on the board when the middle school project was passed and built.
"I would hate to see this issue tearing people apart," adds Dan Hegarty, who came onto the board shortly after the middle school effort that had divided the community over several voting attempts.
The two requested an interview with the Pilot-Tribune this week to express their concerns.
McClinton said that he has asked district leaders and been told that there will be no detailed plans and specifications for the project available to voters before they go to the polls Dec. 4.
"We're being asked to provide $17.5 million for a concept," he said. "It amounts to plain and simple asking for a blank check."
The former board members feel the financial calculations depend on projected increases in sales tax - which are not guaranteed, they said. They question what will happen if the project proves more expensive than currently estimated, or where the money would go if it proves less expensive.
The lesson from the contentious middle school process is that a considerable campaign may be needed to inform the public, with time for board members to meet with all the civic groups and answer any questions that might arise. The recent vote by the school board to put the rather complex funding issue on a December special election ballot, before an architect for the project had even been selected, left only weeks to organize the election effort.
School officials have noted that current regulation allows such votes on only four dates per year, and they wished to get approval before the end of the year so that the district budget could be drawn to reflect the project. In turn, that would allow work to get underway during 2013.
McClinton and Hegarty say they know it is too late to change the election date, but with the district parting ways with the original architect who drew the plan, and choosing a new firm that says it can do the project for far less money, there are many questions to be asked about how cost reductions would be reached.
"One of two things is going to happen here. Either their plan is going to work for them or it is not. If any of the three needed questions on the ballot fail, my concern is that we don't make leave people angry" [and hurt possibilities for getting the projects done in the future], McClinton says. Ideally, he would like to see the district back up and prepare three optional plans for an auditorium, ranging from "bare bones" to deluxe. Then the board could openly discuss what is needed and make a choice between those plans to take to voters.
In the middle school project, general obligation bonds were used - which require a supermajority but also dictate detailed plans and specifications must be shown, and for the elementary school, a mixture of GO and revenue bonds were drawn upon.
The auditorium plan instead projects funding from sales tax with an extended revenue purpose statement to 2029, increasing the Physical Plant and Equipment Levy which is funded through property tax, and extending that PPEL until 2026. The future funds from those sources would offset the constrction debt. School officials say such a plan can utilize funding sources already in use rather than relying on a new bond issue.
McClinton and Hegarty are concerned that the public may not have a full understanding of all the financial implications by the time of the vote.
"Heck, when you go up and down main street, people don't even know there is a vote. They think the school board is still just talking about it," McClinton said.
Hegarty says he is concerned that the project has been pushed to a vote so quickly that some important details might be overlooked. Parking is already an issue at the school, and if some parking is displaced, where will the cars go - he asks. Have details been worked out about moving utilities? Would the addition and auditorium be tied into existing boilers or will new mechanical systems be needed? Will the whole school be air conditioned? Will the auditorium be available for community events and professional entertainers as well as school events?
Neither man plan to organize opposition to the vote. Both stress that they do not oppose doing with auditorium or high school renovation - and say that they want to see it done "right."
"This community has been wanting an auditorium for 30 years," McClinton said.