THE senior class of 2013 was still a year shy of kindergarten the last time the Oklahoma City Public Schools district tried to pass a bond issue that didn't involve the assistance of city officials. In an eight-month period during the 1999-2000 school year, district officials twice asked voters to pass no-frills bond issues. They wanted new buses to upgrade a dangerously aging fleet and long-overdue maintenance at dozens of neglected school buildings.
District officials and supporters believed voters were ready. By the time the first of the bond issues hit the ballot in June 1999, the school district had worked its way through a disastrous start to the 1993 bond issue that promised air-conditioned schools on a completely unrealistic timetable. It turned out that voters weren't ready to forgive and forget. By the time the district sought another bond in early 2000, district officials met questions of credibility head on. They hired a construction management firm to oversee the work. Again, they were denied.
It was against that backdrop that the makings of what would become MAPS for Kids began percolating. When this combination of a citywide sales tax and school bond issues worth nearly $700 million appeared on the ballot 11 years ago this month, voters finally relented. Backers of the plan focused on one major aspect: The city government would take a lead role in overseeing the money and construction. School and city leaders stuck to that script in successfully marketing another bond issue in 2007.
School officials are in the early stages of planning for another bond issue. At least one person wants the district to fly solo. “It's time for this district to show … that we are capable of running a bond,” school board member Jay Means said recently.
Work from MAPS for Kids is winding down. Bond issues are critical to maintaining that investment. Progress isn't as obvious on the 2007 bond work, which got off to a painfully slow start.
The public will expect an accounting of the last two bond issues before it bites on another. But the looming question is much the same as it was in the pre-MAPS for Kids days: Does the public trust the school district and its leaders to properly manage a bond issue?
The value of the city's management safety net can't be overstated. For more than a decade, the school district has necessarily borrowed the city's reputation and credibility to gain the confidence of voters. Timing also is important. Three board seats — District 1, District 2 and the chairmanship — are up for election in February.
No matter the value or necessity of projects the school district might propose, a bond issue without the city safety net would be a referendum on public confidence. This conversation has to happen eventually. Here's what we already know: History tells us the likelihood of the school district successfully courting voters for a school bond issue is far from a sure thing.