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$155 million in bonds for city schools on Aug. 3 ballot

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 25, 2010 -   The St. Louis Public Schools will ask city voters to approve $155 million in bonds Aug. 3 to pay for construction, renovation, technology, security and removal of lead paint from school buildings.

The special administrative board that runs the city schools approved the measure at its meeting Thursday night. The bond issue would need a four-sevenths majority for approval.

The proposal, known as Proposition S, would allow the district to issue a portion of the bonds as what are called "qualified school construction bonds" -- a form of debt included in the 2009 federal stimulus act.

According to the Department of Education, the bonds are designed to help state and local governments obtain low-cost financing for much needed public school improvements and construction. Instead of interest, buyers of the bonds receive federal tax credits, so the issuers of the bonds are able to borrow the money without having to pay interest.

The stimulus act approved issuance of $11 billion of the bonds in both 2009 and 2010 by states and large educational agencies. For 2010, the city schools were authorized to issue $28,481,000 in the bonds; Kansas City schools received authorization for $16,274,000.

According to the wording of the ballot proposal, proceeds of the bonds would be used "for the purpose of acquiring, constructing, renovating, repairing, improving, furnishing and equipping school sites, buildings and related facilities."

Specific projects would include removing lead paint and other hazardous materials; upgrading technology; improving building conditions and security systems; upgrading school kitchens; and improving playgrounds and athletic fields and facilities.

School officials said approval of the bonds would not result in a tax increase. Enos Moss, chief financial officer for the city schools, said if the bond issue does not pass, the district would keep its current tax rate of $0.6211 and prepare high interest rate bonds to retire its current debt. At that rate, he said, the debt would be paid off by 2018.

St. Louis public schools have submitted bond issues to voters twice during the past 10 years, winning each time. On Nov. 7, 2000, they passed an $80 million bond issue with a 71 percent approval rate for air conditioning projects.  On April 8, 2002,  a $120 million bond issue for additional air conditioning projects passed with a 75 percent approval rate.

Richard Gaines, the member on the three-person Special Administrative Board who has been overseeing the process to shape the bond package, said in an interview that the school system held dozens of meetings to get an idea of what people thought the schools needed -- and what they thought of how the schools have handled their finances so far.

"We had people who went out to listen to what people's perceptions were of the schools' physical plant and the recommendations they had on what needed to be done to make facilities safer, more attractive and better," Gaines said.

The needs, he said, ranged from improving the buildings' electrical systems so students could have more computers to more basic needs like fixing roofs.

"We do what our money allows us to do," he said, "but there is a consistent problem in terms of deferred maintenance. If we don't fix a roof that needs fixing today, it doesn't get better tomorrow."

In a video prepared as part of the work of the FACTS effort -- the Facilities Advisory Committee for Tomorrow's Schools -- Superintendent Kelvin Adams said that the school system is at a crossroads.

"It is simply impossible to provide a 21st century education," he said, "in buildings that date back as far as the 19th century."

The presentation said that the average age of the district's buildings is 72 years, but some of them are more than 100 years old. A facilities assessment showed needs that totaled $300 million.

It also spelled out the three priorities for the bond issue money: Improving student achievement, with more computers, more pre-kindergarten classrooms, better science labs and more gifted education programs; student safety and security; and healthy lifestyles, including better school kitchens and improved athletic facilities.

Of the $155 million that was finally decided on, Gaines said that part of it would raise money that has already been spent to rid schools of lead-based paint. He said the urgent need to remove the paint, to avoid health problems, prompted the district to spend money out of its general obligation budget. Money raised from the bonds would be used to repay that sum.

As far as the timing of the bond issue goes, Gaines said a big part of the decision to put it on the ballot was the fact that the bonds that were part of the federal stimulus package have a sunset provision. "If we don't take advantage of that," he said, "it goes away. It's a substantial way of getting dramatic amounts of work done for the schools."

Gaines said he expects to solicit funds for a campaign to urge passage of the bond issue in August. He also knows that the selling job won't necessarily be an easy one, but he thinks the school system has shown it can spend the money responsibly.

He notes that a past bond issue to air condition many schools prompted some discontent because not all of the money was spent on a timely basis, and some of it went into schools that were later closed or sold. He thinks the student population has stabilized, so he hopes that will no longer be an issue. And he said once the Special Administrative Board took over, the remainder of the bond issue funds were spent, with the projects coming in on time and under budget.

"We think we have a track record of getting these things done," Gaines said.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.