Somebody pump energy into school bond debate

Somebody pump energy into school bond debate


Successful school bond elections follow a checklist.

First — administrators realize bad things have reached a crisis: check.

Second — a diverse citizen committee charts a reasonable path forward: check.

Third — the school board balances costs, needs and neighborhood concerns: check.

Lastly — a prepared vote-yes committee immediately distributes information, explains community needs and details building plans.

Where is that final piece?

Rapid City Area Schools Superintendent Lori Simon said last week the vote on the $250 million Rapid City Area Schools bond scheduled for Sept. 17 could be delayed because residents need more time and information. With fewer than 75 days until the big day, with mosquitoes creating the only real buzz here, delaying the bond vote is a great idea.

“(A delay) gives us an opportunity to slow down, really engage deeply and educate our community," Simon said. As an employee of the district, however, Simon’s ability to advocate for the bond is sorely limited. The need for advocacy, meanwhile, looms large. Somebody or a whole lot of somebodies must step forward to help.

A school bond is a big ask in a town that traditionally doesn’t favor bonds. This one would increase property taxes by $1 for every $1,000 of a home's assessed value. That’s around $200 per year for many homeowners.

The community’s limited pool of concerned parents, pro-growth business interests and teachers won’t be sufficient to ensure bond success. The bond issue will require 60 percent approval at the polls. The crowd opposed to anything and everything is big. Success for this bond will depend on that large middle group willing to sacrifice for a broad benefit if the need is justified.

So far, most undecided potential voters couldn’t tell you much about what the bond will build, or where, or why. If the bond issue passes, the district plans to rebuild or replace three elementary schools and two middle schools over three to six years. It’s a complex issue and far more information must be disseminated.

Simon said the school board will discuss a new date for the election at its meeting on July 11, but no potential new date has been offered. She hinted, however, at a possible timetable when expressing fears the city could miss out on a period of favorable interest rates.

"They might not be as favorable in the spring, or whenever we decide to hold that election,” Simon said.

Postponing the vote to coincide with the likely Republican and Democratic primaries on June 2 would certainly lure more voters to the polls and allow sufficient time for discussion. A bond of this size, a decision regarding school improvements this extensive, deserves a large voter turnout — far more than the 8,500 out nearly 45,000 registered voters who turned out for the recent municipal election.

The issue also deserves a well-rounded discussion no matter the outcome of the bond. The coming schools crisis won’t solve itself. Something will eventually be necessary. We need to talk about it.

Simon said future community outreach regarding the bond may consist of additional public forums like the ones the district held after the bond initiative was announced. That sounds like a good start, but the need is far greater. If no community group steps forward to inject more energy into this debate, ultimate bond failure seems probable.

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