By MJ Brickey
More than 60 people heard from McAlester’s school superintendent Monday as she spoke about problems in the school district that might be remedied with public bond funding.
McAlester Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Marsha Gore addressed the meeting held to ask the community for member input on a possible school bond issue that could range from $4 million to $18 million.
More than 60 people turned out for the meeting; most were educators.
Gore welcomed the crowd and introduced professionals recruited to assist with the school bond issues. The three were on hand to answer detailed public questions: financial advisor J.C. Leonard, architect Jeff Ball and consultant Nancy McKay, former chief financial officer at Jenks Schools for 35 years.
Voters have rejected school bond issues twice already — in January and October of 2011.
There were two proposals in January — $34 million for building renovation, new classrooms and an events center, as well as athletic facility renovations, and $1 million for buses. The issues needed 60-percent voter approval, both failed.
Then 10 months later, MPS asked for $11.8 million for construction, repairs and equipment, and $500,000 for buses. Again, the issues failed by more than 50 percent.
Gore said this time the schools are reaching out to the community for public opinions and ideas. She said the method has been proven to work for other communities.
Jefferson Early Childhood Principal Stacey Fryer spoke up to say that this would be a great opportunity to give students the best.
Gore said the community is the school district’s greatest resource and the schools want to maximize that resource through asking for involvement in the process of bond development and improvement. She then asked those interested to join a Bond Issue Task Force. Some added their names to a list Monday night; others can contact the MPS administration office at 918-423-4771.
She said the schools need the community’s feedback and suggestions as to how the schools can provide students with better educational and technological tools as well as facilities and security equipment.
Gore said every community member is a stakeholder in the school district and their input creates the characteristics and personality of the school district.
“Public education is being attacked and challenged every day,” Gore said — financially, with legislative mandates and by the media — so there is not a clear understanding by patrons, staff and community partners of the issues schools face daily.
She said the schools’ mission is to accurately communicate with transparency and accountability.
Gore said there have been substantial revenue fluctuations over the past five years and the schools maintain and work to improve fiscal stability. She said state aid has been cut $706 per student since 2006; MPS has 3,037 students.
“Employee salary and benefits make up 80 to 85 percent of general operating fund,” Gore said. “And the remaining 15 percent is used for utilities, textbooks, classroom supplies, faculty professional development, the cost of mandated testing, other underfunded or unfunded mandates by legislature.”
She said that leaves very little room for capital needs, programs, teaching tools or support of extracurricular activities.
She said money from a bond would be spent on equipment including security cameras, textbooks and library books, technology equipment and electronics, band instruments and uniforms, land, furniture, maintenance, renovation, repairs, vehicles, new buildings, media equipment and language labs.
Aaron Williams, of McAlester, said many times smaller children get left out when it comes to considerations and funding. He suggested MPS make these children a priority and then a bond issue would be successful.
As McKay, the former Jenks CFO, ran a projector showing pictures of school property in ill repair, Gore defined what each pictured. They included photos of stained ceiling tiles and deep potholes in the student pickup/drop-off area at Emerson Elementary School.
After explaining the details and dynamics of MPS needs, Gore said she wanted to recruit 25 members for a School Bond Task Force to represent a cross section of the school district and community.
She said the first task force meeting would take place Nov. 18 at 6:30 p.m. at the Old McAlester High School at 200 E. Adams Ave. She said she would facilitate the meetings at which feedback and suggestions from the community would be reviewed. Then, she said the group would review and determine what the school district’s short- and long-range capital needs are.
She also said the task force would collaborate with project architects and financial advisors regarding project costs and funding qualifications.
Attendees suggested the elderly population — those without children and those on a fixed income — may not support school bond issues.
Jimmy Williams, of McAlester, noted there is a statute that may exclude those on a fixed income from having to pay more taxes. He said he would research the statute and share what he finds with the schools.
McAlester Mayor Steve Harrison asked how MPS plans to solicit feedback from the public. Gore said she planned to seek out public opinion through the local newspaper, radio and by knocking on doors in the community.
Harrison asked if Gore had considered scientific research for the project. McAlester News-Capital Publisher Amy Johns said scientific research is not the answer. Instead, she suggested the 25 task force members go out into the community and ask the public for its input.
Contact MJ Brickey by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.