Park City school board now has the power to pursue facilities projects without voter approval but says bond measure is still ahead
The Park City Board of Education granted itself new power Tuesday that allows it to issue bonds without voter consent, enabling the board to potentially undertake the large-scale building projects it has sought for years without asking voters to approve the debt.
But Board President Andrew Caplan flatly denied that was the board’s intent.
“It’s not the right thing to do,” Caplan said of pursuing projects like building new schools without community support.
Instead, the new authority may be used to move quickly to pursue smaller projects or those with time-sensitive funding elements and is less cumbersome than heading to the ballot, Caplan said. Voters will still be asked to approve the most expensive projects, like expanding the high school to accommodate ninth grade, he said. And community input will be key in determining which projects the board seeks.
“The plan is still to do the bond referendum,” Caplan said. “… That’s the way it’s typically done. Talking about a massive amount of money — we’ll have to get buy-in regardless.”
He added that a bond measure would likely be on the ballot in 2021.
The Board of Education voted unanimously to create a building authority that is empowered to issue debt in the form of lease revenue bonds. The Park City School District would then pay back that debt using tax revenues.
Business Administrator Todd Hauber said the main benefit of establishing a building authority is flexibility: It enables the board to secure funding in less time than the ballot measure process, which typically takes the better part of a year, and it would allow the district to repay the money using two of its taxing sources, giving future boards options in how to pay off the debt.
The board’s vote comes amid a multi-year facilities planning process to address shortcomings with the district’s schools, including overcrowding and some inadequate facilities.
The other common funding mechanism for paying for projects the size the district is contemplating — cost estimates range up to $100 million or more — are general obligation bonds, which require the consent of voters at the polls.
In 2015, Park City School District voters overwhelmingly rejected a $56 million bond measure for new school facilities. In the intervening years, projected costs have risen dramatically as the enrollment pressures continue to mount.
The district currently uses six temporary classrooms to help keep class sizes low, Hauber said.
The facilities master planning process has roots in discussions as far back as 2014, with the current effort officially beginning in 2018. Caplan said the goal is for architectural work to be finished by the end of 2020 so the community can evaluate different options next spring and summer.
The community’s top three priorities, Caplan said, are clear: Getting ninth-graders back into the high school, moving eighth grade into Ecker Hill Middle School and expanding the capacity for early-childhood education.
Large-scale bond efforts have recently and repeatedly failed in Wasatch County and the South Summit School District, both of which are also grappling with the area’s booming enrollment numbers.
Caplan denied the characterization that establishing a building authority is an “end-run” around voters and the notion that the Board of Education was trying to usurp community control.
“It’s not our job to decide that the community needs new schools, that’s for the community to decide,” he said.
He said the reason the 2015 bond failed was that board members at the time overstepped their bounds.
“That’s not what we’re elected to do. That’s why it went off the rails in 2015 — (that board) mistakenly thought it was their job to decide and the community roundly rejected them,” he said.
Instead, Caplan contended, establishing a building authority allows the district more flexibility in how it funds projects, referring to it as another tool in the toolbox.
Furthermore, Caplan pointed out that the board has always had the ability to unilaterally pay for projects without community consent: It could simply raise taxes.
That would require a truth-in-taxation hearing, but the board would have the discretion to proceed regardless of public input. Caplan said that strategy would unfairly burden families in the district today, who would be paying for facilities that would last for decades. Bonding enables the costs to be spread over a longer timeline, which Caplan said would be more equitable. And while the board is empowered to raise taxes, paying for projects this size over two or three years would require a massive tax increase.
The type of bond that building authorities can pursue comes with a slightly higher interest rate, but with historically low interest rates, Hauber called the difference inconsequential.
Caplan touted the building authority’s flexibility in allowing it to bond for smaller projects and possibly take advantage of public/private partnerships that might materialize as the district prepares a significant overhaul of its facilities.
To put a bond measure on a ballot, a legislative body is required to pass a resolution by a specific date in August. If voters approve the measure in November, the organization must contract with an underwriter, issue the debt and bring it to auction, a process that typically lasts into the springtime.
A building authority could issue bonds with less lead time.
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The public is invited to learn more about, and weigh in on, the Park City School District’s $79 million bond proposal.