Open forum offers PCR-3 officials 1st chance to answer tax levy questions

Dr. Mike Reik stayed as long as possible and tried to answer any questions directed his way. Platte County R-3’s superintendent understands the challenge ahead and plan to use any opportunity — like the Oct. 29 open forum held at Platte City Middle School — to aid the district’s cause.“I don’t like it, and most of these facts are terribly inconvenient — especially for me. It’s our reality,” he said during a presentation to a few dozen patrons at the forum.

The public received the first of two opportunities to ask questions of the proposed plan to put a measure on the April, 2015 ballot seeking a lease purchase tax levy designed to help Platte County’s overcrowding issues in many of its buildings.

Another open forum is planned for Nov. 13 at the same location as Reik and the Platte County Board of Education finalize the tax amount, project and ballot language, which most go to the board of elections in January. Currently, the proposal includes asking for between 38 and 50 cents per $100 of assessed valuation on property to help fund about $28 million for a new elementary school in Platte City and various renovations to existing buildings.

A similar proposal in 2012, which included a larger tax hike attached to the district’s operating levy, failed by a healthy margin.

The open forums continue an effort to gain feedback on the district’s long-range master plan. Attendees were allowed to comment on the various aspects of the current proposal — closing Rising Star Elementary in Platte City, reorganizing grade levels, annexing Paxton School into Platte County High School, the new elementary building and expansion for Pathfinder Elementary in Kansas City — and district officials plan to take those suggestions and survey data set to be completed soon to make potential changes, all in hopes of catering to the desires of the taxpayers.

According to Reik, most agree with the desired changes, but about half have an issue with the funding.

“Generally, they’re OK with what we’re thinking about doing, not as OK when they’re thinking about paying for it,” Reik said.

The main topic of discussion centers around functional capacity and projected growth in enrollment.

According to a commissioned study, Platte County’s buildings are an aggregate 196 students over functional capacity this school year — up almost 100 from 2013-14. Only two buildings remain under functional capacity with total enrollment expected to top 4,000 next year, according to trends and a study of expected residential growth inside the district’s borders.

Reik warned that the study on functional capacity is the scientific method to provide numbers but cautioned that common sense and observation within the buildings backs up the findings. He hopes voters find the current proposal needed and financially responsible, although warning that continued adjustments at a cost would have to be made if it fails.

“We are doing many things currently to cope with overcrowding, making the best of a challenging situation, which is what we will always do,” he said. “We’re here to take care of kids, so we will do whatever we can do to make sure we minimize the impact on their instructional environment and do set up an environment they can be successful in.”

Reik noted that the high school currently employs eight to 10 “traveling teachers,” who do not have a dedicated classroom.

Between the Barry School and high school campuses, eight temporary auxiliary trailers are being used to add extra space, and many fixed computer labs have been converted into classrooms. At the high school, the south cafeteria spills into part of the adjacent gymnasium to accommodate large lunch shifts.

The problems should only worsen as current high school classes graduate with larger ones slowly moving up the system.

Kindergarten class sizes have leveled out in recent years, allowing for the proposed changes — set to be completed for the 2016-17 school year if the April measure passes — should allow the district to create more efficient buildings in the short term.

“This is intended to show that we’re going to grow whether someone moves into our district or not,” Reik said. “We will grow more if people choose to move into our district. We would expect to have growth, but we don’t even need people to move in to our district to have growth.”

Other questions centered around the proposed 20-year lease bond financing, which carries slightly higher finance rates than general obligation debt.

Currently, the district could bond out about $18 million in general obligation, which would not cover the full amount. Plus, Reik, who hasn’t been a part of issuing any debt to this point in his six-year tenure as superintendent, wants to continue to pay off that debt to reserve its use for likely needed future projects, which could be financed without a tax increase if assessed valuation of property within the district can continue to climb.

Reik gave justification against saving and adding to reserve funds to finance capital projects because locking in current prices for financing and construction costs saves money. He used the example of the 2012 proposal to raise the operating levy for a $21 million project that would cost an estimated $22 million just two years later.

“We do not tax you to save money,” Reik said. “We tax you to provide needed services to students. Part of that is safeguarding against catastrophic events. That’s what those balances are for.”

Noted differences between the current proposal and 2012 were the increased cost, which Reik attributed to moving on to a larger proposal because the needs have increased, and the sunset clause. The current tax would expire in 20 years, although Reik admitted that a future board and superintendent could ask for a renewal at that time.

However, the renewal would not happen without voter approval.

“When have I actually seen a tax end? I don’t know,” Reik said. “I kind of feel the same way about taxes in general. I pay taxes in this community as you all do, and by gosh, I’d sure like to have some of that money back. I have to separate my feelings about taxes in general to what job I’m paid to do in terms of recommending a fiscally responsible approach that takes care of the students we are asked to take care of. This is what that calls for.”

Reik also attempted to navigate rumors that Paxton would be used as an athletic center (possible depending on assessment of current gymnasiums and their possible renovation for class space), boundary lines have already been drawn for the possible two-elementary set up in the north campus (a committee with citizen input will help determine that later) and traffic congestion from another school in Platte City (an extension to Kentucky Avenue already in the works would alleviate that).

Some also suggested the logistics of putting a second elementary school in Platte City and whether the unused East Platte building and land would be a better idea. However, a lack of school population density makes that option less desirable, and the second location further north fits in better with the population demographics in the divided district.