Letter to the Editor

Why does the community not overwhelmingly support new school construction?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Marshall Public School Board has again submitted for public vote a proposal for a new facility to replace four elementary schools. This is the fourth similar proposal in the last 10 or so years. The first three proposals received successively less support each time submitted. This is a bit surprising in that most communities place such a priority on education that they tend to accept school board proposals for bond issues and tax levies. This is especially bewildering in Marshall. I have found this to be a progressive community. In my 24 years of residence we have seen community support for a new YMCA, hospital, justice center, Nicholas-Beasley Aviation Museum/Martin Community Center, establishment of 911 service and extensive remodeling of the courthouse.

Why then does the community not overwhelmingly support new school construction? There are probably many reasons. However, "mistrust of the Board of Education" is the number one problem as identified by the Citizen's Advisory Committee. (The Marshall Democrat-News 12/17/13) Let me suggest some reasons why this may be true.

1 -- The board has evidenced poor decision making in such matters as erecting and shortly razing a building, allowed deficit spending to reach $1.5 million over a three-year period and then firing the superintendent for spending which the board either approved or failed to monitor.

2 -- Inadequate or incomplete building proposals (failure to reveal true full cost of new facilities.)

Mistrust of the board is only intensified by actions related to this proposal, which give the appearance of trying to outmaneuver and/or mislead citizens by:

1 -- Buying land and prematurely signing it as the location of the (as yet unapproved) new Marshall Elementary School. Some see this as a challenge (dare) to voters to turn down the levy.

2 -- Asking for a tax levy increase instead of bond issue to evade the legal limit for bonded indebtedness, and the legal requirement for a 57.5 percent majority vote to pass. The proposed facility is expected to cost about $42 million. That is almost twice the bonded indebtedness allowed by state law for Marshall School District. There is a reason why state law imposes those limits. Further, some voters may not realize that the levy applies to personal property as well as real estate.

3 -- The superintendent inaccurately stated that there had been no tax levy increase in 40 years. (MDN, 2/11/14, 3/6/14) Residents are well aware that voters approved a $0.31 tax levy increase for operating funds in 2003. This was an exact match for the bond levy that expired in December 2002.

4 -- Selection as member of, and a spokesman for, the Citizens Advisory Committee, a non-resident of the Marshall school district who will be unaffected by the outcome and cannot even vote on the proposal.

5 -- Focusing on age of existing facilities. Buildings being too old, is not, per se, a salable idea. The courthouse is considerably older than any school building, and there has been no suggestion that it be razed and replaced.

Further, the recent unfavorable report on student achievement suggests that the board should focus their attention on education. The board is just as accountable for student achievement as for facilities. It is regrettable that for so many years, students and teachers have had to use temporary housing, but that is not the cause of disappointing student achievement.

It is well established that, on the average, home-schooled children do better academically than public school children. There are many reasons for this, but it is not because home-schooled children have a $42 million facility and equipment at their disposal. There is ample evidence that spending money on buildings does not equate to improved student performance. Kansas City provides a convenient nearby example.

Some will not support this project because the tax levy has no sunset. Since this is not a bond levy with a specific purpose, the funds may be used any way the board sees fit. Remember the gasoline tax increase a few years ago to build four-lane highways across the state. The tax is still there but the highways aren't.

There were 12 teachers in my family in my generation, including my own tenure as a high school teacher and university department head. I support education. I voted for some of the previous proposals. Marshall Public Schools deserve our support. But, I can't support this method of funding (a 48 percent tax levy increase) to provide $45 million of public funds to this board for this project.

--Edward Richards, Marshall