HARRAH — School bond elections often inspire spirited debate, and that is the case in Harrah as residents prepare to vote on a proposal that is the largest in the district's history.
The $44.6 million bond election Sept. 10 will be Harrah Public Schools' second try this year at getting a bond issue approved. A $36 million bond election failed in February, just missing the necessary 60 percent threshold for passage.
The new bond would impact all of Harrah's campuses, providing money for remodeling, classroom additions and technology upgrades. The largest item is an $8.2 million overhaul of the district's athletic facilities, including a new 2,800 seat football stadium complete with locker rooms and a newly constructed multisport fieldhouse.
Other proposals include a $5.1 million addition to the high school that would include eight new classrooms, new administrative offices and renovation of the science department.
Ten new classrooms would be added in a $4.3 million project at the junior high school, along with smaller projects under $3 million at each of the three elementary schools. Storm shelters are part of the projects at all schools. Also included is $14 million in bond fees and interest through 2029.
Superintendent Paul Blessington has been perhaps the most vocal proponent of the bond issue. Hired earlier this year after serving as superintendent at Luther Public Schools, Blessington said he sees the need for improvements.
“Our heating and air conditioning systems are a big issue and roofs are a big issue,” Blessington said. “We have a lot of outdated buildings that may have been the Taj Mahal in the 1980s but they look like something out of a time capsule now. We need to be put on the same playing field as everyone else. It's not a cheap fix.”
But some residents disagree with the way the district constructed the bond issue. Harrah resident Randy Goodman said the bond is a mixed bag of Band-aids and misplaced priorities.
“I think it's a poorly planned bond issue, and that has nothing to do with an increase in property taxes if it passes,” Goodman said. “They have said they want to compete with other districts but this is a Band-aid approach and one that could make it impossible to have another large bond for the next 10 or 15 years if it passes.”
Goodman would like to see a new high school built at a different location and a higher priority placed on academics and fine arts. He also said the district hasn't done a drainage study at the location of the proposed athletic facility.
But Blessington said those studies would be done if the bond election passes.
“There are always things that are fluid in projects like this,” Blessington said. “We didn't do the studies because it's going to cost $25,000 to do an erosion study on a hypothetical facility that hasn't been built yet and funded by a bond issue that hasn't passed yet. That's not financially responsible.”
Goodman also has concerns about what will happen to the existing middle school. The district is exploring options to lease the facility but Goodman said leasing 60,000 square feet of classroom space in an aging building would be difficult.
“The culture of neglect is a problem and one that I've addressed in a presentation to the board,” Goodman said. “What's bothersome to me is that they say they don't plan on demolishing the buildings they are abandoning.”
Goodman said the district is planning on demolishing the existing football stadium, but there is no funding for that in this bond issue.
“They've said they can do it for $30,000 but I'd be shocked if that was the case,” he said.
Harrah resident Jason Bell graduated from the high school in 1989 and has two boys in the public schools. His wife is a teacher. Bell has seen the steady decline in facilities since he was in school and believes it's time to act.
“There hasn't been a lot of change since I graduated almost 25 years ago,” Bell said. “Those buildings look almost exactly the same as they did when I was in school. You go to athletic events at other schools and you see how far behind we are.”
But some residents object to what they think is too much money being spent on athletics.
“I have kids involved in sports and I think it's too much,” Harrah resident Angela Holmes said. “Our kids have textbooks that are falling apart. I'm not against money being spent but I want it used the right way. I think priorities need to be adjusted.”
Goodman said the increase from a $31.6 bond issue that failed earlier this year to the $44.6 million proposal currently on the ballot doesn't make sense. But Blessington said the increase is the result of lengthening the period of the bond by two years and the decision to upgrade heating and air conditioning units and also to remodel some restrooms to meet ADA requirements.
Property taxes would go up $80 for every $1,000 paid in property taxes. Bell said that is a small price to pay.