BURLEY — The Cassia County School District will go to voters with a $56.7 million bond request in March to address facility needs like more classrooms and HVAC upgrades.
After presentations and a long discussion, the Cassia County School Board voted during a Thursday night meeting to move forward with an election.
If approved by voters, bond money would be used for projects like additional classrooms at Burley High School, Burley Junior High School, Dworshak Elementary School and Oakley High School; completing the addition at Declo Elementary School to address overcrowding; upgrading HVAC facilities throughout the school district; renovating and improving Cassia Regional Technical Center; and for equipment and furnishings.
The estimated average cost for property owners would be $201 per $100,000 of taxable income. But the impact could be less than that over time as businesses come in or expand in Cassia County.
Representatives from Hawley Troxell, a Boise-based business law firm, gave a presentation to the board about the ballot language and differences between pursuing a 20 or 25-year bond. The board opted for a 20-year bond.
“This is really complicated stuff,” said trustee Darin Moon, adding if the same presentation was made to the community, all but three people would be asleep. The information needs to be presented in a way that’s understandable to the average person, he said.
John Evans, chairman of a citizens committee that came up with a recommendation for the bond, told the school board he recommends pursuing a bond in the spring “or as early as we can.”
“Our work is just beginning and we’re going to work hard to get this thing passed,” he said.
School board chairman Ryan Cranney asked Evans if the list of projects that would be funded by the bond is complete and if he feels anything is missing.
“There might be some changes, but I think this is pretty well complete,” Evans responded.
As for project cost estimates, “I’m much more comfortable with these numbers than the last bond,” Moon said, referring to the 2015 bond.
The process of looking at facility needs has been underway for one-and-a-half years. Facility needs, Evans said, are driven by school enrollment and community population growth.
“We’ve had tremendous growth,” he said. “What’s causing our problems is growth. People are discovering Cassia County and they’re moving here.”
The school district, he said, has to be prepared for that growth. He said he’s excited for the future of the school district.
But the district has had 25 years of inadequate investment in facilities, Evans said. “After 25 years, it kind of adds up and we’ve got to do something about it.”
During a presentation to the school board, Evans talked briefly — but without going into details — about past issues with underestimating project costs for a 2015 bond.
“You know, we’ve made a few past mistakes,” Evans told the board. He said Mike Arrington — who’s with Starr Corp. — has helped this time with providing cost estimates “so we wouldn’t get in trouble with overburdening patrons with additional costs.” Arrington was also at the meeting.
A couple of school trustees also brought up the topic of community trust, with issues that arose with 2015 and 1996 bonds.
After three failed previous attempts, voters approved a $36.95 million bond in March 2015 to build new elementary schools in Burley and Declo, remodel Raft River High School in Malta and for other projects across the school district.
An architect, Hal Jensen of Pocatello, put together cost estimates before voters passed the bond. But the Cassia County School District later learned his license was expired during the time he performed the work and fired him. Jensen’s license was later reinstated and was retroactive for the 2015 calendar year.
The school district was notified by its construction management company and the district’s new architect that Jensen had woefully underestimated costs for the projects in Burley and Declo, and there were minor shortages for projects in Malta and Oakley.
The Cassia County school board decided to go back to voters to try to pass a bond to make up the difference. But in March 2016, voters rejected a $14.9 million bond.
This time, a citizens committee was created in August 2017. The group met with school employees and toured every Cassia County School District campus.
The committee started out with 30 people from across Cassia County and dwindled slightly to 21 active members, Evans said. It included community and business leaders and parents.
While touring schools, the committee saw the lack of maintenance and underfunding of school facilities, Evans said.
Evans told the school board when he went to a Declo school, it was raining that day. He said he couldn’t believe the buckets set out on the gym floor to catch water so the floor wouldn’t be damaged.
“I thought we had to do something,” he said, adding it wasn’t acceptable.
Some committee members’ opinions changed throughout the course of investigating school facility needs, said Moon, who was the school board liaison to the citizens committee. Some went from wondering why projects were needed, he said, to seeing the facilities and recognizing the needs.
The school board did an independent review of long-range facility needs, Evans said, and then a preliminary discussion with the board about needs happened in June.
Recommendations were examined further in school board work sessions from September through November.
Evans had all three of his children go through the Cassia County education system, starting in Declo and graduating from Burley High School. They received a great education, he said. “But our facilities need to be upgraded and improved.”
After Evans’ presentation, Moon thanked him for his work. “It was not insignificant the time that was put in by Mr. Evans and each individual member of the committee.”