Friday, September 30, 2011

Conservative Patriots Group Opposes 2011 Mat-Su Proposition 3, A $214.5 Million Feeding Frenzy For The Mat-Su School District

Update October 5th: Proposition 3 passes; details in this post.

Like Fairbanks and Juneau, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and some of its subordinate jurisdictions are holding elections on October 4th, 2011. Voters will be asked to choose between candidates for two borough assembly seats and two school board seats. An October 2nd Frontiersman article identifies candidates running for offices in Houston, Wasilla, and Palmer.

In addition, voters will also decide the fate of three borough propositions. Proposition 1 calls for reapportionment, and Proposition 2 calls for $32,165,000 for transportation infrastructural improvement, with a 50 percent state match.

However, the big whopper is Proposition 3. It calls for $214,495,000 for a host of projects related to the acquisition, design, construction, major renovation, and renewal of educational capital improvement projects planned by the Mat-Su School District over a five-year period. To sweeten the pot, it calls for 70 percent debt reimbursement by the state, knocking the cost to the taxpayer down to $64,348,200; this means if passed, it would increase the average property tax bill by $74.41 per $100,000 assessed value. According to the District's fact sheet, here are the three critical elements of this bond package:

-- New school construction, including a Knik-Goose Bay Middle/High School; Phase III of Career & Technical High School; permanent buildings for Valley Pathways High School and Mat-Su Day School; and a new Iditarod Elementary.
-- Life safety needs, including Heating and Ventilation Improvements, Generator Replacements, and Bathroom Renovations at numerous facilities.
-- Deferred maintenance, including roofs and flooring, at numerous facilities.

These are legitimate needs, worthy of support. In particular, the new school construction is justified by the fact that the Mat-Su area is the fastest-growing area of the state. Unfortunately, the Mat-Su School District has chosen to load up the proposition with a bunch of "fluff" projects like athletic fields; their official laundry list shows a total of 101 proposed projects.

And it's the scope and cost of this proposition which has triggered the ire of the Conservative Patriots Group (CPG), which promotes fiscal responsibility. The CPG has three objections; first, it's too expensive; second, they don't believe that future school boards and assemblies will be legally bound to honor the five-year plan; and third, they also believe that future school boards might spend it all regardless of need.

The Mat-Su Frontiersman has published a good letter supporting Proposition 3, which reminds readers that the large price tag is attributable to the fact that it's a five-year plan, and another letter by someone who opposes all the bonds. Other letters about Prop 3 accessible through this portal. However, an unscientific poll conducted by the Frontiersman provides a broader snapshot of public opinion and indicates Proposition 3 may be doomed. Here's how people have responded to the question "How will you vote on the road and school bonds" so far:

-- I'll be voting no on both bonds: 45 percent (611 Votes)
-- I'll be voting for both bonds: 33 percent (452 Votes)
-- I'll be voting for the road bond and against the school bond: 18 percent (239 Votes)
-- I'll be voting for the school bond and against the road bond: 4 percent (58 Votes)

This means that a total of 63 percent of respondents intend to vote against the school bond. In contrast, only 49 percent intend to vote against the road bond. This indicates that while the road bond has a good chance to pass, the school bond is going down, and may go down hard. The Frontiersman editorially supports the bonds.

The Mat-Su School District should have learned from the Anchorage School District that when you load up a single bond with all possible projects, it goes down to defeat. Instead, they should have broken it up into three different bonds, representing three different objectives:

-- Bond 1: New construction only. Since people don't like overcrowded classrooms, this would have a reasonable chance to pass.
-- Bond 2: Life safety projects. Since parents want safe schools, this would have a good chance to pass. One could even append the "fluff" projects to this bond and still get it passed.
-- Bond 3: Deferred maintenance. May or may not pass. Many people believe maintenance shouldn't be bonded, but unfortunately it is necessary to bond maintenance to qualify for debt reimbursement. No reimbursement is possible if the district pays for maintenance out of its normal budget.

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