Builders fret about delay in bond plans

Local contractors were reeling Tuesday from news that the Wichita school district had put future bond projects on hold while it deals with impending budget cuts.

"It's not good news to the Kansas economy," said Corey Peterson, executive vice president of Associated General Contractors of Kansas, a Topeka-based group. "That bond election in Wichita is keeping a lot of good construction companies in business."

Some opponents of the 2008 bond issue, meanwhile, applauded the board's action, saying it's time for the Wichita district to re-evaluate its priorities and spending.

"They are facing reality, and we all have to do that," said Walt Chappell, a state school board member. "Eventually you have to deal with economic realities, and one of those realities is that we can't keep getting ourselves further and further in debt."

The Wichita school board voted 5-0 Monday to "pause and study" the district's $370 million bond issue. The move could alter or delay dozens of improvement projects, including a new high school in southeast Wichita, athletic and fine-arts facilities, school storm shelters and a technical-education magnet high school.

Bond projects that are under construction, including a new high school in northeast Wichita designed to relieve overcrowding at Heights High School, will continue.

Martin Libhart, the district's director of operations, said several economic factors prompted the pause, including a move by state lawmakers last year to eliminate about $4.5 million a year in capital outlay money targeted for Wichita.

While those funds aren't part of the bond issue, Libhart said, plans called for using the money to support bond projects such as buying land, paving parking lots and replacing windows.

The district also stands to lose $8 million to $10 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency money it had expected to offset the cost of building storm shelters and safe rooms, he said.

Now school officials predict an additional $16.3 million reduction in state aid and the loss of $10 million in federal stimulus money.

And suddenly, said superintendent John Allison, building new schools doesn't seem nearly so difficult as staffing, running and maintaining them down the road.

"This could be a better budget year than what we could face in the next couple years, and that's a sobering thought," Allison said.

Bev Sauerwein, vice president for corporate services at Sauerwein Construction in Wichita, said bond issue projects have been "a lifesaver" for her company and others.

Sauerwein is working on a $3.5 million addition and renovations to Gardiner Elementary in southeast Wichita and is preparing bids for future projects, she said.

"When this went up for vote, I just kind of knew it was going to be the lifeblood for our industry here in town," Sauerwein said.

When private construction projects slowed to a trickle during the recent recession, she said, school bond and other public projects "kept us all afloat, and that's not an exaggeration at all."

Board president Connie Dietz teared up while answering questions from reporters after Monday's meeting. Neither she nor other board members wanted to push the pause button on bond projects, she said.

"I can't tell you how hard that hits us," she said. "That is really, really hard when we start talking about the fact that we... may not be able to fulfill our promise and commitment to this community and to our kids."

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