Saline School Officials Pitch $180 Million Bond Proposal

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After taking their ideas around to parents' groups and community groups, Saline Area Schools leaders presented a $180 million bond proposal to the Saline Board of Education Tuesday night.

The $180 million would fund infrastructure, safety and security enhancements, technology, education and STEAM labs, community athletics fields and more from 2023-33 with a new millage that's .5 mills smaller than the millage set to expire

David Raft, Principal of Operations for the District, led the presentation to the board. He was joined by Saline Area Schools officials Superintendent Steve Laatsch, Director of Operations Rex Clary, and Director of Technology Jay Grossman. They were joined by corporate partners from Kingscott and Clark Construction Company. Both companies assisted the district with the current bond proposal.

Raft's proposal was more conceptual than specific. 

A facilities needs assessment addressed $330 million in needs, Raft said, admitting that in some cases - perhaps they were more "wants" than "needs." That assessment was derived from discussions with staff, administration, and representatives from Kingscott and Clark Construction Company. Then the district began meeting with students, parents' groups and community focus groups to trim down their proposal.

Finally, the team hired Epic MRA to poll the community.

Rob Atkins, of Kingscott, said the polling convince the team to shrink the scope of the project. Atkins said the community would not support a millage increase. Atkins also said the community did not show adequate support for an athletics fieldhouse. What the community did support was infrastructure security and educational improvements.

Maintaining the existing millage would have raised $220 million. Reducing the millage by .5 mills increases the chances of success, Atkins said.

So what's in the bond proposal?

  • Additions to all school buildings.
  • STEAM/innovation labs.
  • Improved career technical education spaces.
  • Upgrades to classrooms.
  • Inclusive playgrounds and outdoor learning spaces.
  • Improving the traffic flow on central campus (Liberty/Saline Middle/Woodland Meadows/Heritage).
  • Creating a second entrance to the Saline Area Seniors Center.
  • Moving the transportation department and bus garage to a place between Saline High School and Saline Middle School in the industrial park.
  • Improving the Saline Middle School athletics facilities, including the tennis courts, track, and athletics fields.
  • Updates to the pool at SHS
  • Expanding the weight room at Saline High School and moving it to the first floor.
  • Upgrading the SHS softball and baseball fields to turf.
  • Running water out to the SHS softball/baseball fields, creating concessions and restrooms.
  • Replacing infrastructure equipment.
  • HVAC upgrades at Harvest, Heritage, SHS and Liberty.
  • Parking lot resurfacing at Saline Middle School and Pleasant Ridge.
  • New carpets and flooring.
  • New buses, including electric buses.
  • Roofs Saline High School and Saline Middle School.
  • Investing in Informacast security systems in all buildings.

The proposal did not specifically explain what project costs. However, Atkins did break down the $180 million proposal somewhat. He said 56 percent of the proposal dealt with infrastructure and safety improvements. Another 29 percent was dedicated to educational improvements and STEAM labs. The last 15 percent was dedicated to improving athletics facilities and community spaces.

Board President Jennifer Steben questioned why the athletics fieldhouse did not make the cut.

Atkins said that the general community didn't support it. He said 49 percent of the people reached supported the fieldhouse. Factoring the 4.9 percent margin of error, that could be as low as 45 percent. In general, Atkins told the board, he had high confidence that anything with 60 or more percent in a poll would be supported in an election.

"Infrastructure, security and education items are strongly supported in the community," Atkins said.

With that, the board has begun explaining this bond proposal as an extension of the 2015 bond proposal that was marketed as needed to keep schools safe, warm and dry.

The district could have raised $220 million by maintaining the current millage. Laatsch said that by reducing the millage, the district was being sensitive to other things happening in the community, including the higher water and sewer rates in the City of Saline. Laatsch said the district knows there may be coming expenses in the fire department.

"We're trying to look at the entire picture versus the schools, themselves, in a vacuum," Latsch said.

Laatsch said it was important to demonstrate the district was "living within our means."

"We spoke about $300 million in a needs assessment but what do we really need to make sure that we're positioning the school district well," Laatsch said.

Board Trustee Susan Estep questioned if the board would receive a more detailed budget to consider ahead of the next meeting, when the board is expected to decide whether or not it will put the measure on the November election ballot.

"We haven't seen anything as far as specific plans or details of estimated budgets," Estep said.

She also said board trustees might benefit from a tour of the facilities to explain what's proposed.

President Steben asked how this bond proposal would be communicated with the community. 

Atkins said an information campaign would begin when school resumes. The first phase will target absentee voters and the second phase will be aimed at mobilizing election day voters.

Trustee Jenny Miller said she appreciated the proposal was responsive to the district's needs.

" I think that it's evident that it wasn't a plan that was pre-cooked. It was a plan that you took to the community and you listened and responded and I really appreciate that," Miller said. "The bottom line for us is that it's 100% student-focused."

Trustee Michael McVey also expressed a desire for more specifics.

"I am really looking forward to seeing some of the details because you tossed out a few terms like solar and I heard you throw out words like innovative. I still have no idea. I can't hang my head on either of those words until we have more detail," McVey said. "The devil's going to be hiding in a lot of those details, and you thinking you might be able to get us those by when? As the public hears this, they're going to want the nitty-gritty details too."

Many of those details haven't been spelled out, according to Clary.

"We haven't done any fine-tuning. Nothing is cooked. We've got a lot of input we've got to grab from all these groups to design details," Clary said.

Atkins said that in some cases there's such thing as too much information.

"One of the things we are careful about in a campaign is we don't want to get too much out in the public because I've seen voters go to the polls and say 'you know what, I don't like the color of that edition. I'm voting no."

Still, the bond team is expected to have detailed drawings and more specific information before the board at its next meeting, May 24.

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"A facilities needs assessment addressed $330 million in needs, Raft said, admitting that in some cases - perhaps they were more "wants" than "needs." "

What the public needs to understand that with the 2015 Bond assessment, the vast majority of the actual needs were addressed in advance of the end of the existing millage. (The roofs that were replace before they in actual risk of failure as an example.) This was done in advance due to the interest rates available at the time. The District even was able to reduce the actual amount by over $1 million from what was approved due to the reduction in the interest rate actually paid.

What we are seeing with this broad stroke concept is based on the fear that once the existing millage ends, if the district does not go for a renewal now it will never get approved. 

This is a classic case of institutional overreach by trying to ensure a long term revenue from the taxpayers regardless of need.( it is not necessary per David Raft but a "want list" )

This is at a time of a doubling of the interest rate the district will pay. 

I encourage EVERYONE to look closely at the specific items. "seems like a list of "wants" not needs". to quote David Raft from the presentation itself.

David Zimmer

Long Range Planning Committee Architect 2004 and member of the Board of Education 2011 - 2015.

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