Community group claims its Kansas school board lacks transparency in bond issue campaign

(The Sentinel) – Voters in USD 273 Beloit (Kansas) go to the polls in April to decide the fate of a $20 million package of new construction and facilities upgrades for the Mitchell County…

(The Sentinel) – Voters in USD 273 Beloit (Kansas) go to the polls in April to decide the fate of a $20 million package of new construction and facilities upgrades for the Mitchell County district. But some people are concerned that school officials are not fully answering their questions.

The bond issue is a two-part question. Question #1 will cost $16.2 million and includes:

  • New Agriculture Center
  • Renovate & Expand Woods/Construction Tech
  • HVAC Replacements at Elementary School & JR/SR High School
  • New Stadium Press Box & Restrooms
  • Payoff Current Lease Purchase

Question # 2 would cost $3.8 million and is contingent on voters’ approval of Question #1. The improvements to athletic facilities will only be undertaken if the first question passes:

  • JR/SR High School Locker Room Renovation
  • Football Field Artificial Turf Installation
  • Track Resurface
  • Tennis Court Resurface

Beloit School Board President Joe File explains why there are two questions on the ballot:

“The bond issue was split into two questions to allow for more community choice.  However, the board wasn’t comfortable funding athletic facility repairs and improvements without first addressing critical building infrastructure needs. Therefore, we made the decision not to provide for the passage of question 2 without the passage of question 1.”

Taxpayers for Responsible Spending, a group of concerned Beloit citizens, opposes the bond issue, and has offered a financial analysis of the spending plan developed by the investment banking firm Piper Sandler, saying the school board has not released a cash flow analysis showing interest and debt payments, property taxes imposed, or any other information.

The group’s spokesperson is Valerie Walter, who believes the ultimate bill will be too high for patrons:

“Over the life of the bond, we are forecast to pay a total of $39M ($39,023,626), of which $19M ($19,023,626) is interest.  They used an interest rate of 5.38% to establish the budget for their mill levy, and they believe they can lock in a rate of around 4.0%, as they have come in under 3.8% with a couple other bonds.

“Just like many of us have sticker shock when we look at the total payments on mortgages or car loans, USD 273 taxpayers need to be aware of the actual $39M burden this bond will place over 25 years on our community of 4378 (ACS (American Community Survey) 2022, district population). With many farmers and local businesses barely staying afloat, can they handle this extra burden?

“What happens if it is too much for Sunflower/AGCO to maintain their operations here?  What about lower-income families, who may already be swamped with high-interest debt and can barely keep up with their bills — are we going to ask them to trim an already tight budget for this? AGCO is a large corporation with a local plant, Sunflower, that is one of our largest employers. I understand that they just announced some temporary furloughs.”

Beloit Board President Joe File takes issue with the group’s contention that the district has not been transparent in its communications with patrons:

“The mostly anonymous group that approached you is simply not being truthful.  We have held public meetings and published information on-line and in the local paper specifically on this topic. If this anonymous group was being honest, they would acknowledge that we have previously shared that we do not have final design and construction drawings for individual projects, and therefore we do not have fixed line-item costs. That’s not how projects like this work. It would be irresponsible for us to spend the money on construction-level designs necessary to produce actual costs for each project, especially when we know that those opposed to this project would still be opposed, and the outcome of any election is uncertain.

“Conceptual cost estimates which include significant contingencies have been developed by our CMAR (Constructions Manager at Risk) in coordination with our architect, and those have been published on our sites and in the paper for both question one and question two.  We have repeatedly stated that should the bond pass, final designs for each project will be produced for each project along with guaranteed maximum pricing by our CMAR for each project.

“For each of these projects, our board will have the final say on whether to move forward with bids for each project, or else request design changes for one or more projects resulting in revised guaranteed maximum pricing, prior to proceeding to the bid phase.  The only costs that are fixed on this project is that if question one passes, the maximum cost to complete all projects under question one will not exceed $16.2 million and if question 2 passes the maximum cost to complete all projects under question 2 will not exceed $3.8 million.

“Our board fully anticipates the actual costs for each of these two questions to be less than the maximum costs, and it is our intention to return any unused funds to pay off the bond early.”

Some Beloit residents say the district must have an estimated cost for each project within Question 1 and Question 2 to arrive at the $20 million total.  They believe the district should provide those estimates to taxpayers.

The last day to register to vote is March 28th for the mail-in election. Ballots will be sent out on March 29th and must be returned to collection boxes on the north and south sides of the courthouse by noon on April 18th.