Time will tell whether the Nickerson/South Hutchinson school district and proponents of a nearly $30 million bond issue have started too late to overcome serious opposition. Community informational meetings are scheduled next Monday and Tuesday nights, but that's barely a week before voters decide the proposal's fate Nov. 5 and well after advance voting is already underway.
As an outsider on the USD 309 plan, it's been interesting to observe a badly split board and strong resistance to the huge property tax increase and spending under consideration.
Solid arguments can be made that some upgrades are needed at Nickerson High, South Hutchinson Elementary, Nickerson Grade and Reno Valley Middle School. But opinions are also strong that USD 309 taxpayers, currently with the lowest property tax of any Reno County district, can't afford and justify the estimated 20.25 mill increase. That would vault USD 309's taxes to among 6% of the state's highest-taxed districts, one of the few figures both sides seem to agree on.
Opponents say an $18 million bond issue is more logical, while proponents call that unrealistic to meet "critical needs." I'm guessing, however, that an additional $235 taxes on a $100,000 home is more than most can afford, especially in the City of Nickerson where overall taxes are among the highest in Reno County. School officials propose a 25-year bond, at least 5 years longer than many financing plans, meaning interest will be an estimated $19.5 million, perhaps more or less depending on rates when bonds are sold.
Making matters worse, those favoring approval, meeting under the banner of "The Bright Future Campaign Committee," turned away opponents and other interested citizens at Journey Mennonite Church saying it wasn't a public meeting. Well, it certainly wasn't advertised that way and was attended by a Wichita architectural firm being paid by the district, the Nickerson principal and school board member Jason Ontjes while his opponent in the board election and wife of another candidate who is also opposed were denied entrance.
Whatever happened to letting people come in, learn the facts and perhaps change some minds through pro-and-con discussion? In several respects, the Nickerson School Board, its leaders and some with solid reasons for supporting the plan have conducted a classic case of how not to pass a bond issue.
On the verge of craziness, both sides have scheduled voter meetings on the same nights at the same time. They should be talking with each other and try to fashion a compromise rather than hold competing meetings.
All of this adds up to whether concerned taxpayers are being fairly treated and losing public confidence, something essential if any major tax hike and bond proposal is going to pass the majority muster.
Dan Deming, former general manager of Hutchinson radio station KWBW, is retired and is a Reno County Commissioner. He can be reached at 620-960-6733. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.