Christensen, board members answer ‘questions from the public’

A trio of Greene County school board members and school superintendent Tim Christensen met for informally for nearly two hours Feb. 16 with Hardin Township farmer Kurt Oathout to answer questions he posed in a public forum on a range of topics.

Under a headline “Questions from the public to the ‘publicly employed superintendent’” in another publication, Oathout had asked 17 questions, the answers to which he thinks the public is entitled.

The questions were on a wide range of topics, from seat belts on school buses, property taxes and a school bond referendum, and ways to keep local high school graduates in Greene County.

Christensen opened the conversation by encouraging Oathout to telephone him or come see him with questions in the future. “A lot of the public has these same questions. They don’t want to come out in the limelight,” Oathout said. He said he wanted to “throw another viewpoint out there.”

“I support good teachers and buildings along with wise financial budgeting and spending within our limits of the Greene County school system,” he added.

Prior to the meeting, Christensen prepared short written answers to each question. He and the board members expanded on their written answers as they talked with Oathout.

Oathout asked if, to be fair, the rules of property taxation should be changed. “I propose to change the rule so that for every $1,000 of property tax paid, you receive one vote. Thus, the more you pay, the more your vote is weighted. This is more fair; what do you think?” he wrote.

Oathout also suggested that people should be able to vote where they own property, regardless of whether they live there. The short answer was that property tax and voting rules and regulations are state issues over which the board doesn’t have control. Christensen provided email addresses for Rep Chip Baltimore and Sen Jerry Behn, who represent Greene County.

“What you’re describing is called an oligarchy. That means people with all the money get all the say,” Ohrt told Oathout. “In a democracy we value every person as an equal person, so it kind of goes against what we believe in with a democracy.”

Harding pointed out that Wild Rose Casino is worth $40 million. “Who would vote for the casino? They’d have a lot more votes than you or me or anyone in this room. What if all of us wanted something and they didn’t because they’d have to pay the tab?” Harding asked.

Ohrt said the school system is the only property that is totally supported by property taxes, while the medical center and the city can charge for services. “There’s no way we can create money ourselves…. The other issue is there’s no community entity that has more oversight or transparency than the school. Everything is public. Everything is published,” Ohrt said.

“The other thing that’s important to understand is that taxes are not on people. Taxes are what we do together as a community to do what can’t do ourselves. If you don’t want to pay taxes, don’t drive on the roads, don’t call the cops if something is going on, don’t call the fire department, don’t go to the hospital. Those are all things we do together. It’s not me and the world against everybody else,” he said.

Much of the conversation ricocheted off the failed bond issue.

In one question Oathout pointed out that the public voted against the school bond, and asked “should the superintendent honor the public’s no vote or keep bringing it back for revoting until it passes?”

Christensen answered that placing an item on a ballot requires a petition signed by 25 percent of the number of legally qualified voters voting in the last school election, and that the school superintendent and school board members cannot circulate petitions. “Bringing the issue up for a vote again would be a decision of the voters, not of the superintendent or school board,” Christensen answered.

Oathout also asked if a bond proposal passed, could property taxpayers bring it up for another vote. The answer again was that it’s a state issue, and Christensen asked who would be responsible for repaying the bond should a bond issue pass and be completed, and then go before the voters another time and fail.

Oathout asked whether the district has a 20-year plan. The answer was to “move the district into two buildings in order to become as efficient as possible (operation and maintenance as well as staffing).”

He asked if the board had considered split sessions to gain efficiency rather than new construction. Christensen provided calculations on how the required 1,080 hours of instruction could be met with students attending half-days, and said that additional busing would be needed. Ohrt said that according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, starting a school day earlier than 8:30 am is not conducive to good learning.

Harding explained “Dillon’s Rule,” a concept used in all Iowa education. Under Dillon’s Rule, if something is not specifically allowed by Code, it cannot be done. Iowa Code does not mention split sessions, so local schools cannot use that option. (Under Home Rule, something not specifically ruled out is allowed. Home Rule does not apply to schools in Iowa.)

Oathout asked if the district could provide a list of what is wanted and needed for another bond proposal, item by item. “Maybe we should vote on these wants and needs individually rather than a package deal of all or none. That way we could vote yes for what we want and no on what we don’t want,” his question stated.

“There’s no guarantee that the separate parts would fit together,” Christensen said. Harding said there would be no way to attach costs to each part of the project if it were unknown how each would fit into a whole.

Christensen also said that considering feedback on surveys done after the failed bond proposal, the board plans to do “a much better job of explaining each one of the items, why we need it and the cost,” he said.

As an example, Harding said he talked with many people who didn’t realize the project included adding 24 classrooms at the high school, that many people thought the plan called only for adding a gym to the high school. “That’s why we need to do a better job of showing what it is and explaining it…. If we don’t build the gym, then the classrooms are sitting out there by themselves. They’re not attached to anything,” he said.

The dollar amount in another bond proposal has not been determined. Architects have evaluated all the district’s buildings and are now working on cost estimates to bring them to code and to make them viable for another 50 years as an alternative to new construction. “We’re going to do something to address the next 20 years. We haven’t decided if it’s going to be a $20 million bond. Until we know how much it’s going to cost to fix everything, it’s hard to say what we’re going to do. If we decide to fix all the buildings, and it costs more, the bond proposal in September could cost more,” Harding said. “There’s a really good chance that fixing the buildings would be more than $20 million.”

When Oathout pressed for a dollar amount, Harding said the proposal next September would be “in the same range” as last September’s. Ohrt pointed out that costs are likely to go up, the longer the project is delayed.

Oathout asked, “What is wrong with our middle school gym?” Christensen provided bullet points: the middle school gym has only two locker rooms; no lunchroom/commons area (eat on the gym floor); seating on only one side of the gym; inadequate restroom facilities; not air conditioned; no handicap seating; outdated heating system.

Christensen said the architects’ report will include upgrades to the middle school gym in their cost to renovate.

In talking about renovating buildings vs new construction, McConnell, a contractor by trade, said “I’m not running the same equipment I ran 20 years ago. You’ve got to keep things going,” he said.

“You take 100-year-old building with a heating system that’s 55 or 60 years old, they’re at their life expectancy. The worst part about it is that we’ve got two of those buildings in our district,” McConnell said.

“Three if you include the high school,” Harding added. “That has an original boiler from 1965.” The heat distribution system (piping) is original in both the Middle School and the Intermediate School.

Oathout drew a parallel with his decision that day about replacing a starter on his 1981 truck.

Harding said the board always has a list of things that need to be fixed “and we know the money we have available. It doesn’t ever match, so we have to make choices. If the roof is leaking on the gym floor, that’s a pressing need.”

Oathout agreed that on his farm, he has to decide when to fix equipment and when to buy new. “It’s always that way with the school,” Harding said.

“What we’re talking about with the buildings isn’t because we want to. We have to,” McConnell said.

Oathout asked about a survey done by the board after the failed bond issue. Christensen said there were about 150 surveys returned. They expressed concerns about having 5th graders and 12th graders together, the proposed new gym and wrestling room, the proposed relocation of administrative offices, and putting money into the current high school. Suggestions were made to re-do the middle school gym, focus less on the gym and more on classrooms and education, share specific costs (including transportation) and more detailed drawings, and to educate the public on the reason for spending money on the Grand Junction building a few years ago.

In one of his questions, Oathout noted that the Greene County Schools’ levy rate is higher than the Carroll Schools’ levy. “How are we going to get new families to move to Greene County rather than Carroll County?” he asked.

The parochial school there is the answer. Parents of parochial school students pay tuition and also pay property taxes to support the public school their children don’t attend. “They’ve got a town with a tax base for twice as many kids, but they’re only taxing to educate half as many kids. If they were taxing for all of Kuempers’ kids, they’d have a higher levy than us,” Harding said.

“If you look at the districts around us, we’re lower than most of them except Carroll,” Harding said. “We’ll never be lower than them unless Kuemper dies so the kids actually have to go to Carroll Public.”

McConnell said he hopes if parents compare the two districts – what Greene County has to offer, and the cost of living in each place – they’d choose Greene County.

Oathout asked about a possible change in the mechanism for funding education that he had read about in a Farm Bureau publication. “Whether the funding system changes or not, maintenance and repair costs are General Fund expenses. Failing to make improvements will result in excess maintenance and repair costs and lead to a reduction in services provided for students,” Christensen wrote as his answer.

Oathout asked for a list of accomplishments and achievements since voters passed a bond issue. Christensen answered that the district has been able to maintain class offerings and programs, including the Ram Restaurant and the construction class. He said there have been more than 2,000 graduates with a variety of careers. “Our students have proven over and over they are well prepared to succeed in both further education and the work force. Although these are great accomplishments and achievements, it is simply the school’s responsibility and duty.”

Oathout’s final question was, “The school standard seems to be ‘take as much as you can get as long as it does not come out of your own pocket.’ Sometimes during life’s journey we end up off in the weeds. Can we get back on the road headed for the right direction?”

Christensen replied that property tax has decreased significantly over the last nine years, from $17.09 (per thousand dollars of valuation) in 2007 to $12.51 in 2016. Even if the bond referendum passed, the tax rate would still be lower than it was in 2007.

About seat belts on school buses, Christensen responded that child restraint rules and laws do not apply to yellow buses and referred Oathout to Max Christensen, Iowa Department of Education executive officer 1 (transportation).

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