|CPS Supt. Chris Belcher, Ph.D.|
Air conditioning for aging schools, promised as part of bond packages, now attached to tax increases
COLUMBIA, 8/18/11 (Beat Byte) -- Early and late in the school year, on those days so hot only a heat index will do, my daughter and her friends complain mightily about scorching temperatures in one place they shouldn't have such distractions: classrooms at West Junior High School.
In back of West Junior lay some ironic cold comfort: a brand new, $7.8 million expansion of the school district's administrative headquarters, doubtless equipped with the finest air-conditioning tax dollars can buy.
Despite administrative promises that date back several years, older elementary and junior high school buildings in the Columbia Public School (CPS) district remain stuck in an architectural achievement gap, without air conditioning after decades during which school officials should have installed it.
An April 2007 bond vote finally brought air conditioning to five elementary schools: Blue Ridge, Fairview, Russell, Benton, and Parkade.
But eight schools still wait: Jefferson and West junior high schools; Lee, Midway Heights; New Haven; Ridgeway; Two Mile Prairie; and Grant elementary schools.
Chasing the bonds
When she threw out the first pitch for the last bond issue, then-Superintendent Phyllis Chase told parents at Grant Elementary that new bond funds "would finally bring central air conditioning to Grant," which relies on aging window-box air conditioners, hallway breezes, and cool basement rooms in this, the 21st century.
Myriad other upgrade promises -- reported in over a dozen newspaper stories -- came with the same urgent call: that voters approve $120 million in bonds, which they did in 2010.
"This bond issue allows us to complete the air conditioning of schools begun several years ago," then-CPS board member Karla Despain wrote in a March 2010 Columbia Daily Tribune editorial entitled Bond issue crucial to schools well being. "Also, most of our buildings are at least 40 years old and require repair. Almost $25 million is allotted for air conditioning, structure maintenance and repair."
Bait and Switch?
Fast forward to August 2011, when district administrators are now tying the old air conditioning promises to new tax increases.
"If approved, .099 cent of the $4.86-cent levy would go toward the district's capital project fund...The additional funds could be used to help pay for air-conditioning projects in local schools," the Trib reported Aug. 11. "Air-conditioning projects initially were part of the 2010 bond issue, but the majority of the first chunk of the bond funds...are going toward costs for Battle High School."
The air conditioning promise has now gone from "will be" to "could be," with Superintendent Chris Belcher, Ph.D. (above, at podium in superhero costume) adding another spin. "'Teachers and parents just feel like we promised this to them,'" Belcher said of the air-conditioning projects," the Trib reported Aug. 11.
But there's no "feel like" about the air conditioning promise. School administrators -- eager to secure votes -- have repeated it so often that by now it should be an unquestionable given.
The Air Conditioning Promise: 2008-2010
"A second $60 million issue is expected to be on the ballot...Although specific projects have not been identified for either bond proposal, the district also hopes to use that funding to build another elementary, air-condition eight schools and build new gymnasiums at Hickman and Rock Bridge high schools to accommodate freshmen in the future."
In April 2010, the school district is expected to have a $120 million bond issue on the ballot. The bond issue would combine two previously planned $60 million bond packages. Current plans show the money will fund the building of a new high school, a new elementary school, auxiliary gyms at Hickman and Rock Bridge high schools, technology upgrades, and heating, ventilation and air-conditioning projects.
The school board plans to place a $120 million bond issue on the April ballot...The financing package is scheduled to fund...heating, ventilation and air-conditioning projects....
"The school bond package also would pay for...heating, ventilation and air-conditioning projects."
"The bond issue also would finance $14.8 million for heating, ventilation and air-conditioning projects."
"The district has the following plans for $138 million in old and new bond issues...pay for heating, ventilation and air-conditioning projects."
"The bond issue...also had funds to pay for...air conditioning projects at several schools."