By DAVID GUNTER
SANDPOINT — Judging by the proposed $55 million plant facility levy that goes before voters on Tuesday, there is a very direct correlation between the amount of money being requested and the sheer vitriol that such a request can whip up.
Accusations are flying and facts are at loggerheads. For his part, Lake Pend Oreille School District Superintendent Shawn Woodward is keeping the faith that, in the polling booth, voters will have done their homework and come to realize that schools originally built in the 1950s have more than done their job for the community and now need to be replaced.
At the same time, some letter writers and at least one website claim that this levy is little more than an exercise in administrative self-aggrandizement, that the district stands to waste obscene amounts of money on frills and might actually lose the physical schools in what is being portrayed as an overwhelmingly risky funding proposition.
Woodward sat down to address these questions and many others last week as part of what he described as the “tough road” leading up to the election.
Q: You’ve really lit up the letters to the editor with this proposed plant facilities levy. In the main, are the statements being made for and against factual?
A: It absolutely runs the gamut. It’s becoming increasingly more frustrating, because I understand that, whoever writes them and whether it’s truth or not truth, those letters will be published. But many readers of the Bee will read them as fact and that’s unfortunate.
It’s been all over the place — both for and against — and I’m happy to have the opportunity now to clarify some of the things that I believe are misperceptions.
Q: There have been some accusations that the district is proposing to buy things such as $14,000 computers and $4,000 desk chairs. Seriously?
A: There was a particular website that was brought to my attention that outlined some of the so-called “exorbitant costs” that the school district was paying on things like furniture items and computers. The numbers looked absolutely ridiculous to me and I think they would to anybody who saw those numbers.
I knew they were not accurate as far as single, line item kinds of purchases. Sure enough, in digging a little bit deeper, there was a line for a $14,000 computer. We would spend that much money on many, many computers, but that was a case where somebody published a report that does not contain the quantity of certain items.
The bottom line for us is that, if somebody is online looking at things that just do not seem right, I want them to call the school district and we can clarify any misunderstanding that it might generate.
Q: Was that the case with the group that posted those figures? Did anybody bother to call and ask, “What’s the deal with the $14,000 computer?”
A: No. Nobody called us from that particular website. I had community members calling — people who I sat down with to show them the accurate information — who were relieved, but not surprised. They thought it was strange that the school district would spend so much on a single desk, or a single chair, or a single computer.
I’m disappointed that the people who are publishing this never did reach out. They just pick and choose things, take them out of context and publish them as fact.
In retrospect, might it have been a good idea to drill down and show more specific information on budget items?
I’m not sure. I would have to work with our fiscal department on that. But we are ultra-transparent — everything we do gets posted online. It’s something that we’re looking into, but where is the line? How deep do you go? How many more people do you need to employ to make sure that every single piece of paper gets printed out and uploaded onto our website?
It hasn’t been an issue until the last couple of years, where we have people publishing information without talking to us, but I think there is a group out there that is trying to purposely erode trust in our school district. That’s unfortunate.
Q: What would be the reasoning behind that? Why go after the district to paint it in a generally negative light?
A: I hate to say it, but there are people in our community who move here for a variety of reasons. Some people choose to move here for a favorable tax base. I have had people tell me, “We moved here because this is one of the lowest-taxed areas in the United States.” Any time there are measures that they have the ability to actually vote on, they’re going to come out in full force, because they have the ability to influence people.
And there are also people who have told me that they’re just anti-public school — they do not believe schools should be funded the way they are. I would agree with that on so many levels, but I think people also forget it’s a matter of equity. I’ll believe until the day I die that public education is the “great equalizer” and has done amazing things for our country.
They point to other states that have other funding mechanisms for their schools — things like matching dollars from the state to build schools that Idaho does not have. In those states, they’re still paying for those schools; they’re just taxed in a different manner. I can only guess why people might want to discredit the school district, but those are some of the reasons.
Q: From a big picture perspective, why so much all at once? The amount being proposed is an awfully big number and even the most supportive citizen might have to swallow hard to vote “yes.”
A: Yeah, that makes total sense — I would, too. Since the 1950s, we have successfully passed three different property measures — one in the ’50s, one in the ’80s and one in 2009 that was a two-year plant facilities levy. One of them was a 20-year bond that built several schools in the ’50s.
Here we are 60-plus years later and we’re going back out to the voters and saying, “You know what? Those schools are 60-plus years old.” Every 60 years or so, you’re going to have to build new schools.
From an academic standpoint, we’re still one of the highest-performing districts in the state of Idaho. But the bottom line is that, when we did a true, physical analysis of the 11 schools in our district, we found out that the majority of the schools are rated either unsatisfactory or poor, in terms of the physical facility. So we talked about, “Do we wait, or do we attack this now?”
Our committee was worried about the rising cost of construction, which is at about 4.5 percent a year. The longer we put this off, the more it’s going to cost our taxpayers in the long run. The other part is, we know too much not to do something about it now, because it’s negatively affecting student learning.
Q: Schools from that era were pretty solidly built, though. Is it a matter of the skeleton being sound but the guts — the electrical and plumbing and ventilation systems — have gone south?
A: Exactly. The experts from outside of our school district took a look at 19 different components — and all of that information can be found online. For example, they looked at the foundation, the roof, the walls, windows and floors, the HVAC system and on and on and on. At Sandpoint Middle School, for example, 10 of the 19 components were rated unsatisfactory and six of those components were rated poor. So 16 out of 19 components were rated by outside professionals as not being adequate — they need to be replaced.
They used a 100-point scale that correlates with the value of the building. That particular school scored a 29, which basically meant that 71 percent of the value of the building needed to be replaced.
From a functional adequacy standpoint, which would add more cost to a project, the classrooms were built back in the ’50s, back in the day when the class sizes were smaller. They built classrooms at 600-700 square feet, as opposed to today, where we build classrooms at 900 square feet. So you could go and replace 71 percent of the value of this physical building, ignore the class size, ignore the cafeteria and office space that are now too small and still not address the functional adequacies of the building.
We took a look at that as a committee and realized that, to fully modernize that building, it would cost close to what it would cost to replace. However, we also know that when you start renovating an older building — when you really start digging in — the cost can be more.
Q: You mentioned the work of outside professionals in the assessment process. To read some of the comments being made, one would think you had a secret cabal of insiders who simply rubber-stamped a predetermined outcome.
A: Absolutely not. We had a committee that was developed to work with this outside firm. There were four parents with children in the district, two community members without children in the district, five staff members that included a teacher, our CFO, our facilities person, a principal and myself, and two board members.
People weren’t necessarily flocking to be part of this committee — it was a lot of work to come up with these recommendations — so there was some arm-twisting involved. It was a data-driven process where we agreed to leave our biases and preconceived notions at the door, because everybody has an opinion as to what should be done with these schools.
But we’re spending an awful lot of taxpayer money, so it can’t be based on opinion — it has to be based on data about the condition of these buildings and the impact on student learning. At the end of the day, we’re very pleased with the process, which also included three architects who won’t benefit in any way, shape or form from this levy, and a professional cost estimator who came in and worked with us on the costs.
We worked with these consultants and, at the end of every meeting, we had more and more questions that they had to go out and research and then come back and continue working with our committee until, finally, we were ready to make a recommendation that we thought would be palatable to our taxpayers and best for our students and staff.
Q: A lot has been made of the risks associated with the land-lease aspect of this proposed levy, as if somebody was going to come in a swoop up all the district’s schools if we miss a payment. It all sounds very alarming until you consider that it’s precisely like any other form of loan, isn’t it?
A: This is not a risky proposition, by any means. If you look across the United States, the way school funding is set up, most districts end up running bonds. When you do that, you are financing the work — you’re getting the money up front and the property taxpayers are paying back the financing. If you were to default on a bond, you’re going to be defaulting on your property, your collateral.
The difference here is that it’s a new school-funding mechanism that I believe other school districts in Idaho will also enter into as they move forward. It’s based on property tax payments — that’s how we pay the money back.
This is my 25th year in education and I’ve done a lot of school research over the years, and I’ve never heard of a school district defaulting on a loan that is tied to property taxes — it doesn’t happen.
Q: Another ‘factoid’ that’s being thrown around is that this levy request is larger than the total of all plant facility requests for the rest of the state combined. Is that a factual statement?
A: The comparison that’s being thrown out is not an apples to apples comparison — it’s apples to oranges. What they’re looking at is the total plant facility dollars in the 2014-2015 school year. For the state of Idaho, that total is $53 million and change.
That is for one year — our levy is a 6-year, $55 million levy. An accurate way to put it is that, for the state, the plant facility dollars that they’re collecting is $53 million for one year. Ours is, on average, $9 million per year. But they’re also leaving out something really important. In our state, there’s also $140 million that came in for bonds, on top of the $53 million for plant facility levies — so you’re looking at two different funding mechanisms to fund schools.
There’s also one other fact that I’d like to share. In this current tax year, 86 percent of the 114 school districts in Idaho currently are collecting taxes from either a bond or from plant facility levies — that’s the norm. We’re of the 14 percent that’s not collecting right now and we haven’t for many years. Now we’re at the point where we need to do something and that’s why we’re here today.
Q: How do you avoid disruption in schools when you’re taking on this much all at once? Where do these kids go while construction is taking place?
A: The nice thing with Sandpoint Middle School is that the new school will be off of Pine Street — quite a bit away from the current middle school. So that will not be disruptive for the teaching and learning. Washington Elementary will be built while those elementary students are in the old Sandpoint Middle School for a year after the new middle school is built.
Northside Elementary will be built while school is in session on that same property. I was a principal in a school where a school went up right behind the school that we were in, so the students and the staff watched that transpire. While it could have been a disruption, we were able to build real-world learning activities into the construction process. It was a value add in that situation and I’m confident that the same thing will happen at Northside.
Q: Did the thought that this is a way to pay it forward to coming generations of schoolchildren come into these conversations?
A: It absolutely did. I’ve had many conversations in the past six months and, once they have the facts, people understand that this is generational. At times, people are going to get taxed at higher rates dependant upon the needs of the systems in the community and the infrastructure. When I sit down and have the opportunity to really dig into the data regarding the condition of our schools most people say, “I get it — people who paid for this in the ’50s helped me and now I’m going to have to do some investing, as well, in order to have the kinds of schools that can best meet the needs of our learners and, ultimately, the future of our community.”
Q: Historically, there have been two distinct camps on these issues — those who are disposed to be supportive and those who are dead-set against them. This time around, will it be the folks on the fence who tip the balance?
A: I believe so. And that’s why it’s so important to get out the accurate information. One of the pieces that has been misportrayed is that we do have a proven track record. I’ll point back to the 2008-2009 era, when we had a two-year plant facility levy. There’s been some misinformation and mistruths out there about whether or not we finished those projects.
There were two projects approved by the voters at that time — Kootenai and Sagle elementary schools — and those were completed significantly under budget and ahead of schedule. It was the first successful construction levy for the district in 25 years. The district actually completed Kootenai six months ahead of schedule and $1.1 million under budget. Also, there was a $1 million contingency fund built into that plan that was still there at the end. That $2.1 million was spent on a multitude of other projects that were prioritized during that time and all of those were completed, as well.
Q: Does the district stand to benefit from economies of scale as it tackles several projects in a short period of time?
A: There’s definitely a savings when you’re doing more projects at once. You already have the architects on board; you have the people who are building the schools on board. There are cost savings in doing multiple projects versus just one project.
Q: What do you feel is one of the single biggest misperceptions surrounding this proposal?
A: There’s all kinds of thinking out there and the one thing that couldn’t be farther from the truth is, “Oh, the district is only doing this because it benefits the administration directly.” Well, it benefits me as a taxpayer in this community who chose to move my family here, for sure, because we all care an awful lot about the future of this community. By no means are we benefiting professionally.
There are so many ways, as professionals, that we could choose to spend our time that is the path of least resistance. This is not the path of least resistance. This has been a tough road. But it’s the right road for us to follow. When I was hired, I knew that I was hired to ensure that we had the best possible learning environments for our students. We’ve worked very hard. We have an excellent, excellent staff and a super supportive community and that’s why we’ve been able to improve so much in the least 10-12 years in this school district.
Now we circle back and say, “OK — we’ve got to also care about our facilities, just as much as we care about what happens in those classrooms.”
Ultimately, we’re doing something that’s proven to be very controversial, but I know it’s the right thing to do.