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John Wood: What are we doing to our students and teachers?

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While I have served Guthrie on city council for six years, this is my first column for the Guthrie News Page. I’m compelled to write because we face an important upcoming issue: the Guthrie Public Schools bond issue vote on May 12.

John WoodOur school district is famous statewide for failing to pass a bond issue in the last decade. Last year’s bond issue received 52.5 percent approval, enough to pass many other elections. However, state law requires 60 percent approval for bond votes.  Most of the money from last year’s bond issue would have been spent to fix leaky roofs at three schools. Since the bond issue failed, not surprisingly, our schools’ roofs are still not fixed. This new bond issue will help update roofs system wide.

Just weeks after last year’s failed bond, Guthrie made state news because a teacher told parents to send their students to school with coats because of unheated classrooms. A former teacher I spoke with had to spend a lot of money from her tiny salary to buy supplies and even painted her own classroom and plastered a rather large hole in her wall. This is happening because we are not being a responsible community.

What are we doing to our students and teachers? What message are we sending?

This is really nothing new. When my wife and I found Guthrie nearly 10 years ago, our real estate agent pointed out that Guthrie schools were not in good shape and that we might look at Edmond instead. I’m glad we didn’t make that decision because Guthrie has a lot to offer with a growing and exciting music and arts scene, a great place to raise a family, and amazing citizens who have a heart for this place.

How many real estate agents are using our public schools as a reason not to buy in town? Why do we live up to others’ expectations by not keeping our schools up like most of Oklahoma?

Did you know that, according to our 2002 City Comprehensive Plan, the top two reasons for people to move to a town such as ours are the quality of life—specifically in terms parks and schools. Small cities with a poor public perception of their parks and schools languish long term, eroding property values, and in worst case scenarios turning into ghost towns. “The Old Country School: The Story of Rural Education in the Midwest” argues that schools are so important that closing a school down in a small town means destroying an institution that holds the community together. Letting our schools slowly but surely fall apart is not closing them down per se; instead we are allowing them to slowly decline with leaky roofs, overcrowding, and dilapidated structures. Such conditions are a symbol of a benign neglect, essentially underfunding them for either defunct ideological reasons, or willful ignorance of what the problems really are.

I have been told that our county residents are too poor to afford paying even a cent more toward their property taxes; and yes, for some this is an issue; however, for most residents, the numbers do not support this. According to data from the 2010 United States Census Data and the 2006-2010 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, Logan County is ranked eighth in per capital income in Oklahoma our of 77 counties. And, yet Realty Trac U.S. Property Tax Report reveals that Logan County residents pay an average of $1,304 (.71%), which ties it for the sixth lowest property-taxed County in Oklahoma. This is largely because we do not have any outstanding bonds—which is unusual statewide. Not only is Logan County a low property tax county, it’s in a low property tax state; Oklahoma ranked 47th in 2010 property taxes and fell to 49th two years later, according to the Tax Foundation. In addition, the Tax Foundation finds that Oklahoma has the 12th lowest taxes overall.

Our school district debt expired in 2012, and we are the only large school district in Oklahoma without a revenue package to improve our infrastructure. Even with this bond issue passage, this district will still maintain the smallest debt package in the area.

Comparatively, Logan County is actually doing pretty well in per capita income coupled with very low property taxes. I think these facts alone debunk the myth that we are overtaxed in terms of property tax.

What is holding us back? From what I can tell, it’s a matter of identity and a feeling that we are not serving our students as well as we should—especially those students in the farthest reaches of Southern Logan County. Guthrie Public Schools do not have a school outside of town, this leaves the most southern region of our school district underserved as students are finding themselves stuck in a bus for two to four hours a day to and from school. If you are critical that we are not serving students as well as we should then you are right! This is why we need to pass this bond issue.

It makes sense to me that this current bond issue on May 12 can be what is needed to best serve residents in Southern Logan County–they need their own elementary school. A new school can help our school district serve our students as well as build a relationship and identity among residents in Southern Logan County. It will also alleviate the overcrowding our current elementary students experience. We can actually reduce class sizes, giving our children more individualized attention!

It’s not free. It’s our responsibility to teach our future generation, and this will cost us a mere $13 a month for a home valued at $100,000. This is price tag is pretty small as your average cell phone bill is likely $71 per month (according to J.D. Power & Associates) and your average monthly cable TV bill in 2015 is on average $123 (according to the NPD Group). No one is asking for a large sacrifice here, but it will pay huge dividends for our community and especially our children.

I know there is a long-standing tension between Guthrie and Southern Logan County, but as Lincoln said, united we stand and divided we fall.  “Are we not all on the same team?” The answer is yes; we want to improve our community to serve the common good. We want to help our neighbors’ families, so they will in turn help ours. We want to maintain our property values; we want people to move into our city.

The elementary school we want to build near Waterloo will help alleviate the long bus rides for students, and it will ease the overcrowding students experience in our elementaries, which have seen a lot of growth in the last few years. We will finally fix leaky roofs and update the junior high building. This improvement is great, but it’s not possible without the citizens’ blessing. That is certainly going to require us to “Reside in Pride” as our motto states.

I hope you support our community by saying YES to a bond issue that will put a roof over our children’s heads and give access to students in Southern Logan County. I know I will.

John Wood, Guthrie Vice Mayor

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  1. May 5, 2015 at 8:59 am

    First off, a couple of caveats to what I am about to say: I am not south county, I live in city limits, these are just observations. Now…

    When you say there is a “long standing tension” between Guthrie and Southern Logan County, we should probably explore some possible reasons why that is… It could appear to the casual observer that 50 weeks out of the year that part of the school district outside city limits may feel like they are persona non grata until bond election season comes up, and then we are “all in this together”, i.e. there’s only love for those county residents when their money is needed.

    When folks in the south county area see GPS spend $250k on land to build a new school, but the funding for that school isn’t in place and requires a bond, it only reinforces the mistrust you speak of. People rightly or wrongly see that as somewhat irresponsible….if the bond fails (and there’s a history of bond failure) then they have some land, no new school, and leaky roofs on other buildings. It may not have been possible to wait to buy the land and fund the new school in one bond, but it probably would have made for a better “sell”.

    That said, objectively GPS probably does need a new school. GPS *definitely* needs to move to the neighborhood model to get parents away from dropping kids off at 2 or 3 different schools every day. Also, it would be nice if GPS could have projected whether the neighborhood model was possible without the new school in place, because there is a very real chance the new school will not happen this year if those county residents turn out in numbers to defeat the bond.

    Just my $.02

    • May 5, 2015 at 9:27 am

      Just want everyone to know that may not know — by law, school districts are required to specify a location where a school would be constructed on the ballot.

      A new school is not only needed for overcrowding, but to avoid a possible million dollar fine (a year) from the state due to teacher-student ratio inside the classroom.

  2. May 5, 2015 at 9:51 am

    So Chris, according to that law, could they not have rolled the land and facilities onto the same bond? Or is it a chicken and egg kind of situation where they have to have the land first?

    As for the State fining Guthrie a million a year, I don’t see how that would ever happen, the State would catch a LOT of heat.

    • May 5, 2015 at 10:00 am

      In the last bond election for Edmond Public Schools, they purchased land for a future 4th high school (amazing). That school will be on a future bond election for them.

      The actual number, I believe, is $945k — I agree about the State looking bad levying such a fine, but they have been telling schools the possibilities for several years and some have followed through and others have not.

  3. May 5, 2015 at 10:38 am

    As I understand it, that new HS for Edmond will be East of I-35, which is what blows me away, having grown up there. That said, Edmond residents have a history of passing bonds. Do we not know what the law stipulates on land purchase for new schools prior to declaring the site of construction? I couldn’t find anything in Title 70, Article XV on that.

  4. May 7, 2015 at 12:33 am

    The state will absolutely move forward with the fine increase. The fines have been in place for several year but the were smaller than what it would cost to hire the extra teacher to prevent the fine. The only way to avoid the fine is to have a bond pending showing the state the improvements are under way. If the bond does not pass the fines will hit Guthrie hard. Guthrie doesn’t have the problem of not enough staff, they simply do not have the rooms to put the new classes in if they hired more teachers. I for one am swallowing the bitter pill knowing that my kids won’t get the new school and will likely not get a new school in town before they graduate and they are young!! But I know this is the path to improvement not just for my kids but for this town.

  5. May 7, 2015 at 9:59 am

    I don’t know how the state could fine Guthrie upwards of $1M dependent upon the outcome of an election. Does anyone have documentation on the amount of fines assessed by the State Board in the past 5 years? I mean actually assessed.

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