‘We don’t have a lot of existing debt’: Iron County School officials promote $69.5M bond proposal

Iron County School District Superintendent Lance Hatch speaks about bond proposal during a luncheon meeting hosted by Iron County Republican Women, Cedar City, Utah, Sept. 15, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

CEDAR CITY — Iron County School District officials have been spreading the word regarding a proposed $69.5 million bond initiative to pay for a new elementary school and other capital improvements.

Iron County School District business administrator Todd Hess speaks about bond proposal during Iron County Commission meeting, Parowan, Utah, Sept. 13, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

At Tuesday night’s regular monthly school board meeting, district business administrator Todd Hess gave a 10-minute overview of the proposal and a breakdown of the six projects it entails. 

Iron County voters will have the final say when they cast their ballots in the Nov. 2 general election.

Over the past few weeks, district administrators and school board members have visited various governmental bodies and civic groups in an effort to explain the bond initiative and answer questions about it. The district officials’ campaign is expected to be ongoing for another month, up until Election Day.

Hess and district facilities manager Hunter Shaheen made one such appearance before the Iron County Commission on Sept. 13.

“As we’ve analyzed our enrollment growth over the last few years, as well as the current state of our facilities and other things, we’ve found three problems that we need to address,” Hess told the county commission as he outlined the three main issues:

  • Several existing facilities are inadequate in terms of size and room for anticipated growth.
  • Overcrowded facilities make teaching and learning less effective.
  • Aging buildings are costly to repair and maintain.

“We have one elementary school that is over 70 years old,” Hess said, referring to Cedar City’s East Elementary.

Graphic courtesy of Iron County School District | Click to enlarge

Superintendent Lance Hatch and school board President Michelle Lambert made a similar presentation two days later during an Iron County Republican Women luncheon.

Hatch encouraged those in attendance to spread the word about the bond initiative after educating themselves about it.

“We know that word of mouth is probably more powerful than any other form of communication,” he said. “We aren’t here to say, ‘Vote for the bond.’ We’re here to give you all the information you need to make your decision.”

With voter approval, the general obligation bonds will pay for the following six projects that have been identified as Iron County School District’s most pressing capital improvement needs (note: all cost estimates and start dates are subject to change): 

  • Cedar East Elementary building replaced with a new building on the same property (estimated cost $32 million, construction start date fall 2023).
  • Cedar Middle School expanded with new performing arts classrooms, science labs and general classrooms (estimated cost $11.8 million, start date spring 2022).
  • Canyon View Middle School expanded with new performing arts classrooms, science labs and a remodel of the science wing. ($11.2 million, spring 2022).
  • Cedar High School’s science wing remodeled to streamline the use of existing space for needed science classrooms and to modernize aging science lab facilities ($5.5 million, spring 2022).
  • A new shared multiuse facility between Parowan High School and Parowan Elementary to accommodate needed lunchroom, physical education and extracurricular space ($6.2 million, spring 2023).
  • A new district transportation facility to house and maintain buses and other fleet vehicles. The new facility will increase both capacity and security ($2.8 million, spring 2023). 

A required public hearing was held on the bond initiative immediately before Tuesday’s regular school board meeting, during which several people spoke.

East Elementary School has been identified by Iron County School District officials as needing replacement. Cedar City, Utah, Sept. 20, 2018 | File photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

Two speakers said they supported the projects in principle but didn’t agree with the wording of the ballot question itself, which states that the bonds will be used “for the purpose of paying all or a portion of the costs to acquire land; acquiring, constructing, furnishing and equipping new school facilities; improving or rebuilding existing facilities.”

Commenter Doug Hall said that because the six projects in question aren’t specifically listed on the ballot, it’s tantamount to giving the district “carte blanche” to spend the money however it wants.

However, immediately after the meeting, Hess clarified that each of the six projects will be specifically listed in the voter information pamphlet scheduled to go out in the mail at the same time as the ballots. Although it’s true the board could make changes later if they saw fit, doing so would require either a 4-1 or a 5-0 vote, Hess said.

At the school board’s work meeting the previous week, Hatch had talked about the rationale for having some leeway, given the uncertain nature of factors such as demographics and growth projections. 

“We do need to be strong in where we’re at and confident in what we’re doing but allow for the fact that … if things do change significantly, there is a possibility (to change a project),” Hatch said. “It does require a supermajority of the board to vote for that. So that would mean 4 out of the 5 of you would have to vote for that change. And I think that the public would be respectful of that, as long as they know, we’re keeping our eyes open on things too and not afraid to adjust if we need to.”

Iron County School District Superintendent Lance Hatch speaks about bond proposal during a luncheon meeting hosted by Iron County Republican Women, Cedar City, Utah, Sept. 15, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

During Hall’s public comments, he also said he had concerns about the cost, noting that the $32 million price tag for a new East Elementary is more than twice the $14.5 million it reportedly took to build the new Cedar North Elementary, which was completed in 2017.

“I don’t think we could have picked a worse time economically to be looking at doing major construction projects,” he said. “With what is going on economically right now, it’s fraught with danger high and low.” 

Hall suggested holding off for a year or two until prices stabilize and “get down to a realistic number, rather than $32 million.”

Another commenter, Richard Jensen, said the $32 million cost for a new elementary school “seems fine,” but he questioned whether the remaining projects were as cost-effective.

“We’re getting, what, 30 or 32 rooms for that figure? Plus, you know, all the additional gym and cafeteria and all the rest for $32 million,” he said. “The remaining $38 million, though, we’re only getting a total of 16 rooms, a bus garage and the Parowan building. It seems like if we’re dealing with growth, that $38 million is not being spent nearly as efficiently as the $32 (million) for East (Elementary).”

As for the estimated cost to the taxpayer, district officials say the debt service amounts to approximately $212.16 annually in property taxes for a primary residence valued at $300,000 over the 20-year life of the bonds. That annual total reflects an increase of $93.50 from 2021, but Hess said it is down $30.89 from 2020 and down $134.34 from 2015 as the overall tax impact has decreased as the district has paid off older bonds over the past couple years.

“What that is showing is that, over time, we have been paying down the bonds, and that’s good,” Hess said during Tuesday’s meeting. “We don’t have a lot of existing debt currently. Without these (new) bonds, the district would have all of its bonds paid off in the next two years.”

For more information about the bond proposition, click here for the district’s informational flyer and here for an argument in favor of the bonds, which will also be included in the upcoming voter information pamphlet.

The district has also made a series of short informational videos, including one for each of the projects. Those clips are expected to be posted on the district’s website and social media accounts soon. 

In addition to making the rounds at upcoming public gatherings, district officials plan to continue to use social media platforms to help inform the public about the bond initiative, including two Facebook live sessions scheduled for Oct. 5 and Oct. 6, at 6 p.m. both nights.

Other actions: Changing the mission statement and calendar

In other action during Tuesday night’s school board meeting, the board approved a new mission statement for the district, which reads as follows:

Iron County School District supports families in developing college and career readiness by building knowledge, skills and relationships for all.

After having several discussions about the topic over the past few months, the board members received a suggestion along those lines from a group of educators in Parowan, then revised it slightly during their Sept. 21 work meeting.

Sign in front of Iron County School District office, Cedar City, Utah, July 29, 2021 | File photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

The previous motto was simply, “Creating a better tomorrow for all.” 

“I’m extremely excited,” Hatch said right after the board approved the new statement. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a mission statement that, to me, truly captures what a school district is for. I don’t want to put other mission statements down, but you have just fluffy words that really don’t mean anything. And to have something like this, this is truly a wonderful foundational tool that will help us on a daily basis.”

The school board also voted 3-2 Tuesday to amend the current school calendar to change three regular school days to professional development days for teachers, meaning teachers and administrators would work those days but students would have them off. 

In all three cases, the day in question extends an existing multiday break: Oct. 22, Jan. 4 and March 11. The State Board of Education currently permits local school districts to use up to four days each year for professional development, to be deducted from the 180 instructional days mandated by law. 

Board members Jeff Corry and Dave Staheli voted against the change, with Corry stating that he opposed it because it reduces classroom instruction time and Staheli saying he’d rather see the goal-setting and school-wide planning activities be spread out over time, such as on early-out Friday afternoons.

Hatch, who proposed the changes, said that regular goal-making is a vital component of best practices in all kinds of industry not just education.

“We are making this proposal so that every quarter, the buildings would have an opportunity for school-wide goals,” Hatch said, noting that the three days were chosen so as to create the least amount of disruption. 

“School-wide goals require monitoring, periodic reflection and adjustment,” Hatch said. “School-wide efforts require all educators at the site to be involved, not just a small group of them. School-wide improvement requires ongoing professional development, not just a one-and-done.”

“We feel responsible, if we’re going to ask the schools to do certain things, that we provide them the time, the structure and the supervision to make sure that they do it and they do it effectively,” Hatch added.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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