Utah schools weigh construction bonds

Buildings » Districts may ask voters to approve upgrades
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Three of Utah's fastest-growing school districts are weighing their own plans for stimulating the economy -- issuing bonds for more than a half-billion dollars in school improvements.

With interest-rates at an all time low, and construction costs leveling, officials in Davis, Granite and Nebo say the time is ripe for issuing $666 million in voter-approved bonds to upgrade old schools and build new ones.

The projects could help boost the economy, and would come at no extra cost to taxpayers, they say.

"We'll pay back the bond with existing property tax revenue," said Tracy Olsen, Nebo district's chief budget officer. "When people look at their property tax statements, they won't see a change."

The bonds, however, will appear as a tax increase to voters. Truth-in-taxation laws mandate that school construction bonds appear on election ballots with a price tag, showing how much they will cost property owners annually.

"Utah lawmakers argue, 'If taxes could have gone down, they should have gone down, so keeping the same represents a tax increase,' " explained Olsen.

The Nebo School Board voted last week to place a 15-year, $160 million bond on the June 2009 ballot. The money will be used to build four new elementary schools, two junior high schools and for air-conditioning and other upgrades at three 40-year-old high schools.

Without the money, Nebo would be hard-pressed to accommodate its seemingly endless flow of new students, said Olsen. In eight years, the district has seen enrollment jump by 14,000, or 30 percent.

Significant, but less explosive growth, in the Davis district has the school board contemplating a 20-year, $250 million bond.

The board is polling residents to gauge public opinion before agreeing to place a bond issue on the November 2009 ballot, said district spokesman Chris Williams.

Granite has more flexibility, anticipating only pockets of growth in Magna and West Valley City. District officials are pitching a $256 million bond to build two new elementary schools in those areas.

The Granite School Board hasn't said yeah or nay. But a recent poll showed parents and teachers overwhelming support bonding to install air conditioning at dozens of schools, which the bond would also cover. A majority also support remodeling and replacing older schools, said district superintendent Martin Bates.

Granite collects about $12 million annually in property tax revenue.

"A decade ago, that would cover the cost of building a few elementary schools. Today, it won't build even one," said Bates, underscoring that it make more sense to leverage that money to borrow more.