Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Extending SAVE is High Priority for Hudson Board

While the first session of the 88th General Assembly isn't scheduled to begin until January of 2019, the school board has been busy discussing legislative issues that are important to our school district. These topics will form and focus our conversation with candidates and elected officials now and when the legislature convenes in January. Our priorities will help articulate the basis of our advocacy efforts with legislators, and have been presented to the Iowa Association of School boards for consideration on the official platform of legislative issues for that organization. January may seem like a time in the distant future, but now is the time to engage with and understand these issues. After all, we have an election coming up in November! Every seat in the Iowa House of Representatives is up for election, along with half the Senate and the Governor's seat. We need your help in not only understanding these issues, but helping in our advocacy efforts. There are only five members of the school board. But there are hundreds of parents in our school district. Imagine the power of our collective voice! Now then, it wouldn't be proper to endorse any specific candidate, but it would be entirely appropriate for you to consider these issues and ask the candidates where they stand before casting your ballot. Over the course of the next several weeks, I'll be sharing the priorities identified by the board and explaining the importance of them to our school district. 

New windows in the 4th/5th grade wing are part of the scope
of work included in Phase II of the elementary renovation project.
I imagine it won't come as any great surprise to anyone that the number one legislative priority for our school board is the extension of the statewide sales tax for school infrastructure, or SAVE. We have discussed this topic in depth and many times before in this blog so I don't feel it necessary to pile on or give any more examples of the projects we have been able to complete as a result of this fund. Or the jobs it has created right here in our own community. You need only to drive by our school to see the improvements. We are on the downhill side of Phase II of the elementary renovation project, and in the final analysis the cost of this renovation will be somewhere close to $400,000. That follows Phase I which was completed last summer, with a final cost close to $600,000. Easy math right? In the last year we have spent close to $1,000,000 in renovations to the elementary school, and we are just getting started. If all goes according to plan, Phase III work will start as early as the frost is out of the ground next spring and will complete the elementary attendance center. The budget for this project is still under development, but we believe it will be in the range of $4-5 Million. It is our intention to complete all this work using our sales tax revenue. 

For the budget year that began on July 1, 2018 we anticipate sales tax revenue for the district to be $649,240. Assuming a very conservative growth model over the remaining life of the sales tax this would result in millions of dollars in revenue for our school district. That's great, because we are going to need it. The bad news is that based on current law, after 2029 that revenue stream will dry up. I am pretty sure that after 2029 we won't have everything fixed or replaced. And assuming by some force of nature we did, even the most talented of maintenance crews can't prevent systems from just plain wearing out. Just like any homeowner, things need to be fixed, repaired, and in some instances replaced. It is a never ending cycle. 

Some argue that 2029 is still quite a bit into the future and that it's premature to begin discussions about extending a revenue source that is still 11 years away from expiring. But many school districts (Hudson being one of them) count on future revenue projections when prioritizing needs and developing projects. Take for example our Phase III project discussed above. We don't have $4 or $5 Million on hand to finance the remaining renovations that are necessary. But since we know what our revenue projections look like, we can bond against that future revenue without impacting property taxes. Considering twenty years is the maximum number of years in which a school district can issue debt, the fact the current law expires in just eleven years significantly handicaps school districts. Absent sales tax revenue, schools would have to continue to defer projects or ask the voters to issue general obligation debt, which does impact your property taxes.

Look, there isn't any guarantee that we won't be discussing general obligation debt at some point in the future. You all have seen our master facility plan. In order to execute on some of the long term proposals in that vision we are going to need to have a serious conversation about financing. Nevertheless, there must be no mistake that what we have been able to accomplish in the last decade would not have been possible without the revenue generated by the sales tax. I can even list them again for you if it will help. 

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Future of Washington Street

A few weeks back, we had a conversation in this blog about the work we have been doing in the district with regard to master planning. There was certainly a lot of information included in that post, and I am very thankful that many of you took the time to read and consider the future plans and ideas that are being discussed in our school district. It does seem that one idea included in that plan raised quite a few eyebrows and generated some commentary in our community. This is okay, because dialogue is exactly what we need when discussing some of the bigger issues that impact the greater community. The idea that has created the most buzz of course is a proposal to close Washington Street between Wood Street and School Street.

Before we unpack the rationale behind this idea, it is important to consider a couple of points. As a start, this isn't a new scheme or plan that was dreamed up by the superintendent or the school board. None of us have been around that long! The truth of the matter is, this isn't the first time this has been discussed. When it came up during our first brainstorming meeting by a community member, I was curious and interested in learning more. I know many of you haven't been around long enough to know the backstory here either, but in the 90s when discussion was occurring about the construction of the high school; closing Washington Street was a consideration. While the closure of the street didn't occur then, that didn't mean the idea was gone forever. Certainly we can all concede there would be challenges with such a bold move; particularly with regard to the traffic patterns in town to which we are all accustomed. But insurmountable? I'm not quite so certain about that. 

Thinking about this a bit deeper and from a practicality standpoint, closing Washington Street (between Wood and School) makes sense for the school district. One of the highest priorities of the community stakeholder group was to improve student safety in the district. A lot has changed since the mid-1990s, particularly with regard to the challenges schools face with regard to student safety. Hardly a week goes by these days where an incident of school violence doesn't lead the evening news. Indeed, this is why a centerpiece of Phase III of the elementary renovation project will include a new office with a controlled entrance for our visitors. But we can discuss that more later.

With the amount of student pedestrian traffic traveling between our attendance centers for classes, closing off the street would do a lot to improve the safety of our student body. Coupled with a plan to 'flip' the elementary attendance center and move the youngest of our students to the north end of campus, this would also have a secondary benefit of significantly reducing travel and lost instructional time.

Of course our long term goal would be to build a new junior high building in that space, connecting the elementary and high school. In addition to the instructional space this would provide, it would also give our students an enclosed safe corridor between the two attendance centers. But that is in the future and certainly would require a lot more community engagement and discussion. As a start to this conversation, the enrollment has to do what our models suggest it will do in the next several years. Indeed, when the houses start coming we know for certain children will come with them. We are confident they will. Our community and our school district are very appealing and families want to move here to raise their families.

In the interim, our plan would be to close and excavate the street, creating green space between the attendance centers and leaving the bike trail in its current location. It would seem to make sense to begin these strategic moves now, so when, and if the time comes to have a greater conversation about major construction we have considered with some foresight what makes the most sense.

I won't pretend to have all the answers to the questions about how we can deal with and mitigate the details of a move like this. I won't even assume I know all the underlying issues. But, at the end of the day there will be plenty of opportunities for our community to provide input. Ultimately this decision will rest not with the Hudson school board, but with the city council. At this point, I am grateful they are willing to have a conversation. 

Friday, July 6, 2018

Update on the Summer

I hope everyone has been enjoying their summer and finding time to relax, heat up the grill, and spend quality time with family and friends. Our projects in the district are moving along nicely, and in some cases we are a bit ahead of schedule. The only sour note is that the air conditioning is still out in the middle school (which includes the central office). We are very optimistic this will soon be remedied! Next week it is supposed to be in the 90s again, so the sooner the better! Now, I don't know about you, but it is kind of hard to believe we are past the 4th of July! To me, once we pass that date on the calendar it begins the mad rush to the start of the school year. 

The renovations in the elementary school include the replacement of windows in the 4th and 5th grade wing, along with the lighting and ceiling grid. These classrooms will also be outfitted with the mini-split air conditioning units like were installed last year in the early childhood wing. The two computer labs in the library are also having doors installed that open into the hallway because we believe at some point in the near future those spaces will be needed for classrooms. We have also approved work to replace the north entrance to the middle school. You may recall all the trouble we have had with that entrance over the last year. It really began to deteriorate by the end of the school year. 

We are ahead of schedule with regard to hiring teaching positions as well. At this time, all our faculty positions are filled. This is great news, and somewhat rare for us. Usually we are waiting until a bit later to make a decision as to whether or not to open an additional section of kindergarten. Enrollment projections came in early and large enough to warrant that third section early so it was nice to be able to make those decisions early on. Likewise, we are not trying to fill a teaching position in a hard to fill area, which has also been commonplace for us the last couple of years. 

In the coming weeks we will really start to ramp up our operations in anticipation for the start of the school year. Supply orders are beginning to be placed, curriculum is on the way, and very soon the registration material will be mailed out. Our custodians are very hard at work getting the buildings ready for the return of students, and before we know it they will be putting the final coat of wax on the floors in the hallways. 

Now, if we could just get that air running!