Sunday, October 26, 2008

Full Circle

This blog started back in February because it seemed odd that Lynn Rogers and the USD 259 Board didn't seem to have any kind of idea how to proceed in the event the (then) $350 million bond issue failed.

Nine months later, we have seen a changed voting date at the request of bond supporters, a lack of business community support, polls indicating overwhelming public opposition, and an organized opposition to the bond.

What have Rogers and the Board learned?


So what happens if the bond issue fails? Board members haven't talked about that "because it's not the best option," Rogers said in today's Wichita Eagle.

Seriously? The School Board of the largest district in the state refuses to talk about options "because it's not the best option." Instead of facing the reality that the bond issue is likely to fail, the alleged leaders responsible for the education of our children simply bury their collective heads in the sand?

The best Rogers could come up with was some half-hearted talk about 'stop-gap' measures. Architect-in-Chief Martin Libhart said, school officials would rank projects in the bond plan and start trying to pay for the "most critical needs" out of the district's capital outlay fund.

Well there's a thought...identify the most important needs and start working on them.

Libhart whines that the district only has $24 million a year for capital outlay, which would not cover two new $37 million highschools, and suggests that maintenance would suffer.

Here's a few questions for the BOE: How much could go into the capital outlay if fewer tax dollares were spent on $100k consultants, a top heavy personnel structure, and mailings in support of the bond? What kind of facilities could Wichita kids enjoy if the USD 259 board would follow the lead of surrounding districts and work with other organizations in the community, like WSU, YMCA and City Parks Dept?

Apparently, none of those are 'the best option' for our current crop of board members.

Asking the taxpayers to pay for everything on the wish list doesn't require leadership. Making decisions and finding workable solutions that benefit students, the community and taxpayers takes leadership. Facing reality and planning for the future requires leadership.

Now is the time for some for some accountability. Next spring there will be an opportunity to find some leadership.

Monday, September 29, 2008

In Review

I received an email a few days ago requesting a short summary of the the arguments against the bond issue before early voting starts. For a quick 30 second summary, take a look at the Wichitans for Effective Education ad here.

There are four main reasons to vote against the bond:

1) The bond is too big and bloated.

One of the many claimed purposes for the bond is to reduce overcrowding. The enrollment at USD 259 has been relatively flat for the past 20 years. Existing grade schools and elementary schools are not being used at full capacity, while an additional new high school could easily be constructed using existing funds.

The tax increases from bond passage would result in Wichita property taxes for education being higher than both Maize and Andover. For a district trying to stem the flood of students leaving the district for Maize and Andover schools, this is a recipe for disaster.

2) The bond plan is based on the wrong priorities.

The schools that are performing worst academically, the ones failing state achievement standards, are receiving less than 5% of the bond funds. Most of the funds that are going to those schools are earmarked for athletic facilities.

Similarly, the assigned attendance area (AAA), the area of assigned busing, is also being short changed. Less than 5.8% of the bond funds are destined for the schools in the AAA neighborhoods.

3) Passage of this bond will be positive reinforcement of the failures of the USD 259 leadership, further setting back real accountability.

Not only did USD 259 fail to protect our children by adding FEMA shelters during the last round of construction, the overall performance of the educational mission of this district has been substandard. Nearly 25% of students in USD 259 fail to graduate.

The district insists on playing games with district boundaries to separate economically disparate neighborhoods rather than putting kids first and easing localized overcrowding at some schools.

Nearly $7.5 million of the current bond proposal will be spent on facilities that are less than five years old. Not only is this costing tax payers, but it points to a startling lack of foresight by district leadership.

4) The behavior of the School Board and others connected with this bond raise questions about the veracity of the BOE and motives of the bond supporters.

Any hope that the Board of Education might be interested in listening carefully to community concerns when out the window when they changed the date for the bond vote (and added $10million to cover 'inflation' because of the delay) because it looked like their side was losing.

The board then turned over authority to make decisions of the shape and form of the bond to a secretive group of bond supporters, while stonewalling bond opponents seeking simple information, such as the number of classrooms in the district.

A quick look behind the curtain reveals that the money behind the vote yes campaign is really just the usual group of architects and contractors, many of whom don't even live in the district. In fact, the spokesperson for the group doesn't live in the Wichita district.

Happy voting!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Lens of Money

There was an interesting comment over at Wichita Liberty from Joe Williams suggesting disbelief at the idea that the current $370 million bond issue is part of a grand plan to generate profits for local businesses.

Joe is correct, that "Any contractor doing anything for a government entity, stands to make money and many often bid for those lucrative contracts."

However, most business try to generate demand for their products. Do you really "deserve a break today", or is McDonalds merely doing their level best to make you believe that you need to stop for a burger and fries? If you don't need another credit card, why do all those pre-approved offers arrive in the mail?

We've discussed who is providing the money for the bond issue push.

The commenter validly points out that the bond issue should be considered on it's merits. Here at 259Truth, we'll look at the bond issue from a perspective that does not include the possibility of making millions of dollars based on the outcome of the vote.

If others, such as Mark McCormick, want to accept the statements of 'community leaders' without consideration of a profit motive, that is their own business.

In the meantime, perhaps Lynn Rogers could make some minimal effort to get his facts straight (Lord knows Mark McCormick is too lazy to actually check a fact). Rogers claims that Isley elementary has a capacity of 300....USD 259 says the capacity is 480.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Curious Case of College Hill

Several months ago we discussed the declining attendance, yet startling expenditures for College Hill Elementary. At last count, College Hill had an enrollment of 422 students in a school with a capacity of 600, or about 70%. The 2008 bond plan would spend $600,000 for upgrades. That seems silly enough, considering the recent renovations at College Hill.

Lets compare the plans for College Hill to Washington Elementary. Washington is currently at 93% capacity with 557 students in a school designed for 600. How much of the $370 million will spent to expand classrooms at Washington?


What's worse is that students in certain neighborhoods are being forced to travel farther to attend Washington, a school that is nearly full, instead of traveling a shorter distance to attend College Hill.

Take a moment to zoom in on the map and it's startlingly clear. A student living near 1st and Grove must travel farther, cross I-135 and adjacent intersections, to get to Washington, when it would be a shorter trip to go to College Hill. In fact, the trip for the student at 2nd and Fountain to College Hill Elementary is roughly twice the distance as the student at 1st and Grove.

The district claims that adjusting school boundaries is not feasible to solve overcrowding. It appears the BOE's commitment to smaller class sizes only extends to certain schools and kids that live in certain neighborhoods....and heaven forbid that the kids from different neighborhoods would attend the same grade school.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Snouts in the Trough for the Kids

The Wichita Eagle ran an editorial today decrying the lack of mandatory campaign finance disclosure in bond votes. Even without mandatory disclosure, a little bit of digging will go a long way.

Last week we took a look at George Fahnestock's involvement in the pro-bond group. Let's take a look at the other sponsors of last week's "Vote Yes for Kids" bond kickoff party:

Anne & Bob Simpson - Bob Simpson is the owner of Simpson Construction. While the Simpsons don't live in USD 259 and won't be paying a dime of the increased property taxes, Simpson Construction did work on the last bond and is likely to do very well on the 2008 proposal.

"(School work has) been one of the staples in our family for 50 years," says president Bob Simpson.

Foley Rental - The interest of a heavy construction equipment company in a $370 million bond issue seems self evident....and self serving. Foley Rental president Ann Konecny lives in the Andover school district..

Bill Livingston and Gossen Livingston Architecture - Bill Livingston is yet another bond supporter who doesn't live in the Wichita School District, but "Gossen Livingston Associates Inc. is one of the larger architectural firms engaged in numerous school bond projects."

Michael and Terri Monteferrante - They do live in the district and will be paying increased property taxes. Michael Monteferrante is CEO of Occidental Management, a company involved with sales and acquisitions of real estate. It will be interesting to see who handles the real estate acquisition for new construction related to the bond.

Randy Thon - Works is employed by Cessna and lives in USD 259 boundaries. Perhaps Randy is the mystery business person who recommended the last minute addition of technical aviation training to the bond proposal.

Kenton Cox - Like a relative who suggests dinner at Chester's Chophouse knowing you will pick up the bill, Mr. Cox does not live within the Wichita School District and won't pay for the bond proposal that will likely bring hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars, to architecture firm Schaefer, Johnson, Cox & Frey.

Keith Stevens - Treasurer of CARE and Senior Vice President at Southwest National Bank. His previous community activities include service on the Wichita Park Board, Metropolitan Transit Authority, and Wichita Symphony...and $250 donor to Obama for America. Stevens does live in USD 259.

Bill Pickert - Partner in Charge of the BKD Wichita office. BKD is one of the nations largest CPA firms. Mr. Pickert's interest in this bond issue is unclear since he does not live in the Wichita district. Bill could just be a good citizen, he might have had his arm twisted by other business owners, or he might think that someone will need to keep track of the $370 million floating around.

Joe Johnson - Partner of Schaefer, Johnson, Cox & Frey, consistent winners of no-bid contracts from the Wichita School District. There are enough 'Joe Johnsons' that it is a little difficult to determine where this particular one lives.

Conco Construction - Another general contracting company, like Simpson Construction, that has done work related to the last bond and would certainly be looking for future work on the next bond.

The Eagle is concerned that voters won't be able to figure out who is behind the various bond groups. It really isn't hard to figure out at all: we have two architecture companies, two construction companies, a banker, a CPA firm, a heavy construction equipment company all working 'for the kids'.

Wichita voters should be concerned with the volume of support for the bond coming directly from those who have a financial interest in its passage. That a majority of those sponsors stand to make six and seven figures from a bond when they won't have to pay the accompanying taxes because they don't even live in the district makes their motives even more suspect.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Fahnestock's Motivation?

.Tuesday was the official kickoff (numer 3 for those counting) of the "Yes for Kids" campaign! The bond supporters want to raise $400,000 to 'educate' the public, and the whole community is organizing "for Kids".

George Fahnestock is now on board as the official spokesperson for the campaign. Since Fahnestock has a history of supporting every project that comes down the pike, it's certainly not surprising to see his name associated with this bond proposal.

So what is his motivation?

It does seem strange that someone who doesn't live in the Wichita Public School district, would be the spokesperson for the USD 259 bond. Sure, George might know what's best for us, but he isn't going to be paying the taxes, nor will members of his family have to deal with the BOE's wrong headed priorities.

To allay fears that he has a financial interest, Fahnestock said that his company didn't do any of the air conditioning work from the 2000 bond issue.

The mystery is which company he meant. Usually George Fahnestock's name is associated with Fahnestock Heating & Air Inc, but he is also a 25% owner of Central Air Conditioning Company Inc. Fahnestock Heating & Air Inc is primarily in the business of residential heating and cooling. Central Air Conditioning works on a much larger scale and installs industrial HVAC systems.

Fahnestock worked a deal to purchase Central Air Conditioning in 2001, as the Wichita Business Journal reported:

The new owners say their strategy is to use their relationships in the local business community to add to Central Air's business.

"We're not a silent ownership group," Fahnestock says. "We're going to be active in providing leads and expertise."

Apparently some of that business is coming from the Wichita Schools. Central Air Conditioning Co appears on page 7 of the USD 259 approved bidders list. It seems unlikely that they would jump through the hoops to get on the approved bidders list for the purpose of NOT getting any jobs on district projects.

With the various levels of project managers, contractors and sub-contractors involved with the building projects from the 2000 bond, and district leadership bent on stonewalling, it will most likely take an open records request to determine if Mr. Fahnestock's 'other' company did any of the work.

Considering what's at stake, USD 259 should clarify George Fahnestock's involvement in past projects. To avoid an obvious conflict, Mr. Fahnestock would do well to remove all his companies from the approved bidders list and pledge not to undertake any of the HVAC work if the bond passes.

Until that happens, Wichita voters will be wondering what they are saying 'yes' to, kids or 'yes' to something else.


Sunday, August 17, 2008

About FEMA Shelters

.Mark McCormick's "if-you-can't-beat-'em-ridicule-'em" column in today's Eagle recalls something that was a very important issue in days of yore before the aviation magnet.

The Marketing and Communications Department at USD 259 spent a great deal of energy portraying the Bond plan as being primarily for building FEMA shelters at USD 259 schools. Obviously, everyone wants Wichita children to have a safe shelter during severe weather. So what exactly is a "FEMA Shelter" and how important are they?

In 2000 the first edition of FEMA publication 361 "Design and Construction Guidance for Community Shelters" was published. This document presents important information about the design and construction of community shelters that will provide protection during tornado and hurricane events.

Two years later, in 2002, FEMA produced a study on Kansas Schools and the Wichita School District specifically: "Protecting School Children from Tornadoes: State of Kansas School Shelter Initiative" This report was very complimentary of Wichita Schools, stating that the district had taken "decisive action to protect the children in its schools" and that USD 259 "led by example" spurring shelter construction in other areas of the state.

Julie Hedrick, USD 259 supervisor of architectural services is quoted on the inside cover: "How wonderful it is for students, staff, and parents to have a place to go while at school so that they will feel safe and secure during tornado activity."

Unfortunately, after basking in the initial glowing reports, the school district leadership completely failed the children of Wichita. Going page by page through the USD 259 website reveals that there are 91 schools in the district, 46 have had significant construction since the School Shelter report was published without including a FEMA shelter as part of the construction.

Since 2002 over half of all Wichita schools have undergone major renovation or additional construction but still do not have any shelter that meets the guidelines set out in FEMA publication 361.

The District's misplaced priorities and decision not to include FEMA shelters as part of new school construction placed our children at risk.

Their mismanagement has resulted in costing more in the process. The 2002 FEMA report estimated that building an addition on a school would cost only $40 per square foot more than normal $115/sqft if built to FEMA 361 standards. As Martin Libhart can tell you, construction costs go up over time.

FEMA shelters should have been included in all construction in the last six years. That did not happen, and no one is being held accountable.

While McCormick continues to engage in his childish tantrums on the pages of the Eagle instead of digging for facts, Wichita voters are left to figure out on their own just how important FEMA shelters really are? They are, after all, for the children..... just not until there is a need to justify a new bond.