School board still deciding bond amount, when to ask for operating levy

Worthington Schools leaders still have several decisions to make before midsummer, but they are certain they will seek a bond issue on the November ballot.

Treasurer Jeff McCuen outlined a series of options for school board members in a financial presentation Jan. 22.

The filing deadline for the Nov. 6 general-election ballot is July 31 for both bonds and levies, McCuen said, but he believes decisions would be made much sooner.

Findings from the district's facilities committee at the end of last year demonstrate that the district would need to request a bond issue and a new operating levy relatively soon to pay for new school buildings and renovations that will accommodate an increasing enrollment, he said.

McCuen's presentation took a variety of factors into account, as well as detailed options for a bond issue and operating levy meant to spark discussion among board members. His goal, he said, was to nail down timing on a bond issue before tackling other subjects.

"What I wanted them to focus on was not so much the amount of dollars we would be looking at, but more so the timing of that operating levy first," he said. "When would we want to bring that to the voters?"

After more than a year of working with the facilities committee, board President Julie Keegan said board members were well aware of the needs.

She said the board committed to a 2018 bond issue and called the decision a "no-brainer."

"We know the urgency is there and we thought, as a board, that it would not serve our community well or all the people on the task force that volunteered all that time to delay it," Keegan said. "We know it's urgent that we face these capacity and condition issues."

McCuen agreed and said he thought the 2018 option was the obvious choice.

"The more we would delay it, the longer it would take to find solutions to the growing student population," he said.

McCuen and the board now plan to shift their focus to the details of the bond issue and how to approach an operating levy.

A figure eventually will be determined for the bond issue. McCuen said it hasn't been decided, but he thinks $80 million is needed to pay for the committee's recommendations and normal operating costs.

The bond issue would pay for construction and the operating levy would be needed for regular maintenance and general operating expenses, he said. But the combination of the two funding mechanisms becomes complicated, he said.

McCuen narrowed the district's options to three years, presenting scenarios for an operating levy in 2018, 2019 or 2020.

He said he and board members are worried about the potential of ballot fatigue for a 2019 levy because it would follow so closely to the 2018 vote.

Largely because of that concern, a 2019 levy was removed from conversations.

That leaves the district with the option to put a levy on the ballot alongside the bond issue in 2018 or wait until 2020, McCuen said. If the district chooses to make the levy an incremental levy, which would increase in millage over a period of years, it would be unable to combine it with the bond issue in 2018, he said.

Keegan said she is glad to have the bond decision made but she sees positives in not rushing the levy decision. She said she hopes a couple months of decision-making could help keep Worthington residents involved in conversations.

"We have the luxury of a lot of time to get the public involved and educated about exactly what we're going to be asking," she said. "The next two discussions will get much more into the nitty-gritty."

Regardless of the board's decision, McCuen said, he already has started thinking about how he'll present the issue to residents -- especially because 70 percent of Worthington voters no longer have children in the district.

"We really have to be cognizant of the costs for our community for any increases, and we have to be able to justify them," he said.

Keegan said she expects the board to have decisions made on the bond issue and operating levy by at least May in order to prepare for the November ballot.