Tried and true, or shiny and new?
It must be nice to be a newspaper columnist. Back in May, Chuck Sweeny wrote about how the Rockford Public Schools need to lower the tax rate. That “district taxes can’t keep going up forever. It’s counterproductive. [It will lead to] a downward spiral from which recovery is impossible.” But in this morning’s paper, Mr. Sweeny argues for a school construction plan that would only be possible with dramatically higher taxes. You can’t have it both ways.
Mr. Sweeny proposes we should “replace at least two high schools, maybe three” with a new large high school. Where would this school be placed? If you replace East andAuburn, do you build a 4,000 student High School on the near west side? When we are trying to pull parents away from private high schools and to district schools, do we think a 4,000 student school will really achieve that goal? And the cost: A new regular-sized high school is $75 million or more; a double sized school, including the costs of eminent domain land purchases to get the property that you would need in the center of the city would easily push the cost north of $150 million.
He also proposes shrinking the number and increasing the size of the elementary and middle schools. If you collapsed our 28 elementary school to six super-sized schools, you’d pay at least $40 million per school – add another $240 million. You would also need to fight countless lawsuits against eminent domain takings to build these schools. I’m sure taxpayers will be thrilled to have the district spending their money on endless court fights, as construction is delayed, costs rise, and students are stuck in buildings that need repairs.
So we are now at $390 million – and we haven’t touched the middle schools! This is already $80 million more than the district’s 10-year, 3 phase plan. Add three new middle schools, and we’re at least $200 million over budget, and we have almost 50 abandoned buildings or empty lots to dispose of.
Many of our existing buildings are structurally sound. They need upgrades and updates, but not to be torn down or left abandoned as we build shiny new projects.
Mr. Puri wants a new school building in Northeast Rockford, where he could build a new subdivision on land that his company owns (I assume that Mr. Puri is so committed to this vision that he’ll sell the district land for its new school for $1). This new school is in phase three of the plan – and if Mr. Puri and Mr. Sweeny, and everyone else who wants this goal, would work to support a national or state school construction capital fund, then we could do it. But a new (regular size) elementary school costs $20 million. Which four or five other elementary schools should we not repair or update in order to pay for this? Or should we raise taxes to pay for this new school?
Newspaper columnists, sideline critics, and vested parties can critique, dream up other ideas, and make a stink when they don’t get their way. But governance means living in the real world and dealing with real numbers. The majority of the school board, who decided to focus phase one on making sure that every building got the most essential updates and repairs, made a wise choice with the available dollars. This plan, unlike Mr. Sweeny’s vision, doesn’t require any additional taxes. When I see an older building that is in good repair and has been updated to keep up with the times, I see a community that cares about its children but isn’t distracted by the shiny and new.
I hope that Mr. Sweeny, Mr. Puri, and all other critics will get on board for this bond referendum. We have powerful forward momentum in our district, and updating our schools without raising taxes is a win for children, parents, staff, and our community at large.