ST. GEORGE — Population growth in the St. George metropolitan area has outpaced the Washington County School District’s projections, prompting officials to propose a $125 million bond to pay for more schools and much-needed maintenance and upkeep projects.
A public hearing was held at the Washington County School District office in St. George Tuesday afternoon to receive comments from the community about the proposed $125 million general obligation bonds.
Following public comments, the Washington County School District Board of Education unanimously passed a resolution to place the proposal on the ballot in the November general election.
At the meeting, officials emphasized that the bond doesn’t raise taxes but instead freezes the current property tax rate in place.
“The bond would not raise taxes above their current levels,” board business administrator Brent Bills said. “As bonding is paid off, the levels will decrease over time, and this would actually just keep the levels at the same level and allow us at the same time to meet the future growth and needs of our district.”
If approved, the board plans to use the money to build new schools, remodel existing buildings and upgrade school safety mechanisms.
The region’s unprecedented growth outpaced the district’s previous projections that monies accrued from a $185 million bond issued in 2013 would last until 2020.
“This growth in the community is forcing us to build schools faster than we thought we were going to build them,” Bills said.
During the meeting’s public hearing, Santa Clara resident Myron Lee, a father of two children enrolled in the district, said he was frustrated at being presented with another expensive bond so soon after the one issued in 2013.
“Every year, the education lobby at the state Legislature goes forward and prays to the Legislature like Mormons pray for the rain,” Lee said. “They say, ‘Thanks for what you gave us, but we need more.’ I’m getting tired of that.”
He said he’s already facing an additional $300 per year in property tax increases and questioned whether the district needs $125 million.
“Please consider that you’re approaching taxpayer fatigue as you continue to ask for more and more money for education,” Lee said to the board members.
Lee’s sentiments were echoed by Richard Faulkner, the only other citizen who gave comment.
“I’m not anti-education by any means, but what would you do if this does not pass,” Faulkner asked. “What are the alternatives if you don’t get it? I’m kind of guessing that you’re assuming that you are going to get this money, but what happens if you don’t?”
Board member Terry Hutchinson said the alternative to the provisions provided by the bond would include year-round schooling and split sessions.
“That’s really the option that we’d be looking at if we don’t get this bond, and quite a bit of it goes for maintenance and upgrading school safety,” Hutchinson said. “It’s one-time money. It’s not money that can come through the normal tax revenue stream.”
Citing aging buildings and decrepit sports fields, Bills said it would be a killer to the community if the bond isn’t passed.
He said there is need for both new schools and improvements to existing schools throughout the entire school district, including expansions to more rural schools like Enterprise Elementary and Enterprise High schools. The county needs two additional elementary schools, and the district is hoping to build a career and technical high school.
There is also a need to add additional safety mechanisms to some of the district’s older elementary schools, Bills said, such as access points to buildings and playgrounds.
Multiple board members said the school district has gone to great lengths in calculating the $125 million in expenses necessary to address the county’s rapid growth.
“It’s important to know that as a board and administrative staff, I can’t even quantify the number of hours that have been spent fine-tuning that number for the bond, going through every school in the district – all the needs in the district – to come up with that number,” school board President David Stirland said.
Superintendent Larry Bergeson said that the county is getting an endorsement from the Utah Taxpayers Association, which he says has recognized the Washington County School District for being frugal spenders of taxpayer dollars by issuing timely bonds.
“There’s a lot of thought – a lot of consideration – that goes into account when you start talking about spending taxpayer dollars,” board Vice President Kelly Blake said. “We’ve also been judicious in how we handle taxpayer money.”
The community will have one additional opportunity to ask questions, provide input or voice concerns at another public hearing during a school board meeting in October, at which point the board will offer a final vote on the resolution to conduct the special bond election Nov. 6.
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