Wichita school board approves remaining $50 million for bond projects

The Wichita school district’s $370 million bond issue made a final turn into its homestretch Monday, as officials approved the sale of the remaining $50 million in bonds for school construction projects.

The vote was not unanimous, however.

Joy Eakins, who joined the board in July, asked to remove the bond-sale item from the board’s consent agenda, saying she had “wrestled with” the proposal over the past several days.

“I have a lot of questions about our bond spending that I still haven’t been able to come to clarity about,” Eakins said.

“New schools that are not being used to their fullest capacity, new schools that are planned whose budgets continue to rise, old schools that have things they need and we’re talking about not doing them. So I cannot vote yes to this.”

Without further discussion, the board voted 6-1 to sell the general obligation and school building bonds, which have an average interest rate of 2.6 percent, district officials said. They will help finance the last of the 2008 bond projects, including a new Southeast High School at 127th Street East and Pawnee, estimated to cost nearly $56 million.

Later in the meeting, board member Lynn Rogers voiced his support of the bond sale.

“I understand you’ve got concerns, and that’s fine,” Rogers said, turning to Eakins. “I would appreciate, though, if we’d have the opportunity to discuss those here at the table in more detail, if you do have questions, so that we could help answer them.”

Rogers said the board has discussed and debated bond projects for more than a decade, particularly since voting in early 2011 to put bond projects on hold while the district re-evaluated priorities and dealt with budget shortfalls. At that time – before the decision in June to build a new Southeast High – Superintendent John Allison said the final $50 million in bonds could be “delayed indefinitely.”

“If we don’t sell the $50 million in bonds, we cannot let another contract,” Rogers said Monday. “We would be putting everything to a screeching halt, and I think it’s important that we finish the projects that we have.”

After the meeting, Eakins said she “didn’t feel like I could in good conscience vote yes to release bonds” when she still has questions about how they will be used.

She pointed to “escalating costs of projects like Southeast.” During debates this spring over whether to build a new high school or renovate the existing one, district officials and bond managers put the cost of the new school at $54 million. Last month, they said it would cost $55.8 million.

Eakins said she also has questions about on-hold projects at Robinson Middle School and Caldwell Elementary. More than two years ago, when construction bids were coming in lower than expected and the bond issue was about $9 million under budget, the board unanimously approved a new auditorium and practice gym at Robinson. Similarly, they had proposed replacing an aging wing of classrooms at Caldwell.

In coming weeks, they will have to reconsider those plans.

“I just have some concerns about how all of that’s pulling together, and making sure we do the right thing moving forward,” Eakins said. “I wanted to express that.”

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