Board members explain bond issue stances
As election polarization reaches a fever pitch in De Soto, residents are lining up to support their opinion on the $105.7 million USD 232 bond issue.
The Vote "Yes" Committee, led mostly by PTA parents, is putting out purple signs on public access land throughout De Soto -- next to red-and-white Vote "No" signs from the Citizens for Responsible Education Committee, led by De Soto school board member Randy Johnson.
Johnson is the only board member to publicly denounce the bond issue, saying he understands the need for new facilities to address district growth but that he's concerned about the way district administrators are spending money.
Johnson announced his opposition to the bond after the Oct. 2 board meeting, using political ads in The De Soto Explorer to explain his opinion. His allegations include accusing the past board members and administrators of awarding bids to companies who contributed to bond campaigns; administrators not being responsible with 2002 bond money when they had to eliminate an elementary school from construction; and building schools too small to be cost effective, among other complaints.
Superintendent Sharon Zoellner addressed the allegations at the board meeting last week at Lexington Trails Middle School.
"That's a serious claim to make, and it's a legal claim," Zoellner said, referring to the accusation that she and other past administrators misused district funds. She said while board members are welcome to disagree with district spending, the term "misappropriation" doesn't fit.
In addition, the district released a five-page report on the accusations that explained decisions on past construction available on its Web site, www.usd232.org. Lists of district payments approved by board members during each meeting are available to the public and are audited several times a year by independent groups.
Johnson said he had read the district's response and called it a "list of excuses."
"It's unacceptable for the board to continue to accept these excuses," Johnson said. "They short the taxpayers on projects not completed."
Shawnee resident Bret Rolig, whose children attend district schools, accused Johnson of using scare tactics to express his opinion.
"I think your claims were the excuses and the responses from the district were very thoughtful," he said to Johnson.
Rolig also complained that Johnson had voted to put the bond on the ballot in February, along with all the other board members.
"I still can't fathom why you voted 'yes' and then changed your mind," Rolig said.
"It causes me input for your concern on the board."
Rolig also said that it was Johnson's responsibility as a board member to make sure a misuse of funds did not happen.
De Soto parent Rex Philbrook said he was undecided on his vote for the school bond election, however he disagreed with Johnson's opinions.
"You've been writing a series of half-truths in the paper, and you have given me no reason to vote 'no,'" he said to Johnson. "If somebody who is undecided votes no because of that, then shame on you."
Chris Akin, Vicky Needham and Peg Newton, members of the Vote "Yes" Committee, said they preferred keeping smaller schools.
"You may not want small schools, but we like our community schools," Akin said.
"I would like to know who is on this vote "no" committee and why they won't stand up and say who they are."
Johnson said the public would learn the identity of some of the Citizens for Responsible Education and vote "no" group after the election. Because the group is not a Political Action Committee, they didn't have to meet the Oct. 30 state deadline of reporting campaign finance and expenses, which would make a report public. Instead, they register with the county and report in December. The Vote "Yes" Committee will make a similar report.
"We are not people against education," Johnson said. "We understand the need for new facilities. We are just people who want the right thing done the first time."
Board President Don Clark, joining the meeting by phone, said he had also been uncertain with the high cost of the bond issue at first.
"I was also in favor of building larger schools," he said. "But after meeting with people in the community, I discovered that's not what people want. I started out doing my research eight to nine months beforehand so I could put my support behind the bond issue instead of coming out against it one month before the election."
Board member Sandy Thierer, who served on past bond elections, said there were several circumstances the district had to cope with to be able to afford new buildings. One, for example, was the 1993 flood that inflated the cost of construction materials. Because of the inflation, the district built De Soto High School to hold 581 students, even though there were 750 lockers and bigger common spaces. The expansion only added classrooms so it would actually have a 750-student capacity. Student population exceeded capacity and, in 2000, the school was split to send students to Mill Valley.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina and high steel demand in China inflated the cost of construction materials and the district canceled its plans for a third elementary school on the 2002 bond.
"We did the best we could with what we had," Thierer said. "To imply that people made a decision that came out bad because we chose to does a disservice to board members who served the district will for some time."
Thierer said she knows that patrons and students would like very much to have bigger auditoriums at both high schools, but that it would cost upwards of $8 million. Instead, the district would build "flex" theaters, or black box theaters, which are large rooms with special acoustics. There's a spot at both buildings for a large auditorium if the public decides that is what they are willing to pay for, Thierer said.
"The bond issue is what we expect to build with those five-year predictions," she said.
Board Vice President Janine Gracy encouraged members of the public from both sides of the issue to get out and vote.
"We need our patrons to make an informed decision when they go to the polls and exercise their right to vote on Nov. 7," she said.