Local schools have some outstanding renovation needs, and a group is being put together by Springfield Public Schools to decide which projects should be prioritized.
The planning is taking place ahead of a potential vote in 2023 to extend a property tax that would repay the school’s borrowing activity through a bond issue.
In 2018, on the heels of a failed 2017 bond vote, the Springfield Public Schools Board of Education deployed a task force to assess the district’s facilities and recommend whether or not a new bond issue was needed to take on needed projects. The task force, made up of longtime community leaders, two board liaisons, SPS teachers, parents and even some students from all corners of the district, proposed a set of projects that emphasized renovation over replacement in many cases. Proposition S passed in 2019, leading to $168 million in construction projects, many of which have been completed.
David Hall, a retired Springfield Fire Department chief and co-chair of the task force, said it was some of the most meaningful public service work of his lifetime. Fellow co-chair Bridget Dierks said that bringing together a grassroots group of authentic voices led to recommendations that about 61 percent of voters favored.
“We needed that good discussion to get us to a good solution that everyone could ultimately support,” Hall said.
But the work isn’t done. Now, after some discussion, the band is getting back together again, although the members may be different. On Tuesday, the board voted 6-1 to redeploy the task force to look at the next phase of needs across the district.
While the task force ultimately recommended construction projects that led to the $168 million bond, it came up with about $500 million worth of potential projects in the process and recommended that three bond issues be put before voters between 2019 and 2026. The task force’s original recommendation called for a 2023 vote to extend the 18-cent levy (which residents pay through their property taxes) that was approved in 2019. Another vote was planned for 2026 to approve an additional 6-cent levy.
Hall and Dierks said they will invite the original members to rejoin them, and replace any who aren’t available with people who represent and reflect Springfield’s demographics and the district’s wide footprint.
What’s been done so far?
The lone dissenting vote came from Kelly Byrne, who wanted the board to pick most of the task force members rather than rely on the group that started the process.
The original members were picked by the school board at the time from all across the district, and the recommendations led to major improvement or rebuilding projects in all corners of Springfield.
In the first phase of the projects, an early childhood center was built next to Carver Middle School, Delaware Elementary was razed and rebuilt and Sunshine Elementary was renovated and expanded.
The second phase included construction of a new Boyd Elementary and renovations of Hillcrest High School and Williams Elementary School. The bond also allotted nearly $8 million to install secured entrances at 31 schools.
The renovation work at Sunshine Elementary came with some unexpected construction cost increases, Hall said, but all six major 2019 bond projects came in under budget. The district has earned about $2.8 million interest and earned a nearly $15 million premium when it sold the bond.
Hall and Dierks acknowledged that the environment and economy are different now. The pandemic, inflation and rising construction costs are among the reasons why all the projects they hoped would be addressed with a 2023 vote to extend the levy could not be undertaken. And without mentioning Uvalde by name, Hall said that recent incidents on school grounds should lead the task force to look at additional safety measures beyond secured doors at schools.
John Mulford, deputy superintendent, said that construction costs have gone up about 40 percent, but so have projections for the district’s property tax revenues.
“We’ve grown enough that at this point we don’t project a tax increase on the third phase (the 6-cent levy) at this point in time,” he said.
Concerns moving forward
With all that in mind, Hall said the goal of the group is to start from square one, but with a knowledge base and consensus-building mindset that the previous group members developed during their time together. Hall said the goal is for the task force to meet bi-weekly starting in July and come to a consensus by mid-October, after which the group’s recommendations will be presented to the board, allowing the members to make a decision by January.
Citing concerns that the previous group members could have a predetermined path forward for the task force after a time of significant change, Maryam Mohammadkhani, the board’s vice president asked the co-chairs if they were “willing to mini-blow it up.” Dierks said that the original members didn’t live in a bubble, and that their experiences the past four years would inform their work.
“We’re not necessarily expecting that every one of these task force members come back with exactly the same point of view, particularly with regard to the actual buildings themselves, the condition of those buildings, whether some of those buildings have had improvements through capital expenses or not, you know, things like that,” Dierks said. “So I think that it would be a real disservice to lose people who have done really, really great work for SPS and are willing to do it again, because they have been committed individuals that are engaged in this process.”
Byrne read parts of a prepared statement in which he said a new task force should review the recommendations of the previous one and assess district needs before putting the issue before voters. He proposed that it consists of 10 members picked by the original task force and filled out by picks made by each of the seven board members.
“I don’t recommend we blow it up,” he said. “I’m just saying that change is not responsible of us to first identify what’s the need. I want to make sure that we don’t go forth and ask for a bond in April where it looks like we said, ‘We want to get a bond. Let’s figure out how to get it passed. I want to make sure we fully identify the need before we go to the voters and ask for $200 million.”
Board member Shurita Thomas-Tate said the needs to address some of the district’s facilities are established. The goal of the task force would be to establish which ones to prioritize.
“I would agree,” Dierks said. “The buildings that were in rough shape four years ago are in rough shape today.”