Syracuse voters to decide on educational, athletic upgrades

5/1/2014

By BRETT MARSHALL

By BRETT MARSHALL

bmarshall@gctelegram.com

SYRACUSE — Kenny Bridges is near to completing his second school calendar year as the superintendent of schools for Syracuse USD 494.

Marty Lehman, a Tribune native and graduate of Greeley County High School 34 miles to the north, has been familiar with the Syracuse school academic and athletic facilities for most of his adult life, and for the past six years has been the district's athletics/activities director.

Mark Davis is a third-generation owner of Davis Motor Co., a Ford dealership that will be celebrating its 70th anniversary next week and also is a graduate of Syracuse High School.

Ron Ewy is a 1968 SHS graduate, former standout track and field performer and football athlete while in high school who returned to his hometown, where he taught and coached cross country and track for 38 years before retiring in 2011. He now works for a local landscaping company.

Those four have been meeting for the past several months with various organizations to advocate for the proposed $6.425 million bond issue that will go before Hamilton County voters on Tuesday that would provide a new gymnasium and a new football field and track, while also providing a new vocational agriculture building.

The three-pronged component of the bond issue is one of the reasons each of these four men have been meeting with members of the community to advocate for its passage.

And by incorporating all three facilities into one proposal, the architects have indicated the school district would save approximately $500,000 compared to if each of the three were built at different times.

"We're looking at a 3 percent loan, and you never know what future interest rates are going to be," Bridges said. "The current mill levy is 16.01, and the new mill level, at 3 percent, would be somewhere around 11.5 to 12 mills. In essence, we get the vo-ag building at no cost by having all three done at the same time. Doing them separately, it would be a lot, lot more."

Clearly, the facilities at Syracuse are aging and need to be repaired, and in the case of the football field/track facility, needs to be replaced, Bridges said.

The existing vocational-agriculture building was constructed and opened in 1963, has limited space and is in need of updated technology equipment to provide students with new learning opportunities in the vocational and agriculture industries that are available in western Kansas, Bridges said.

The football stadium was opened in the fall of 1949 and only once or twice has the field itself been updated. There is no crown on the field to help with movement of water. With the limited use that the football field sees, there will be natural grass planted vs. artificial turf, which would have cost between $250,000 to $300,000. The bleachers have had minimal updates and repairs made through the years and still house the locker room for the Bulldogs' football team. Plumbing and electrical work also are wearing out and need updated, Lehman said.

The track, which at one time was a state-of-the-art "red dog" cinder surface, installed in 1969, is now out of date and hasn't been resurfaced for years, Lehman said. During the 1950s and 1960s, Syracuse hosted the prestigious Syracuse Relays, at the time one of the biggest and most important track meets in western Kansas and eastern Colorado. Syracuse has not hosted a track meet since 1997, and that was a junior high meet, Ewy said.

The track itself is measured in yards and does not meet standards that now require races to be run in metric distances. The asphalt runways and approaches for high jump, long jump and pole vault events are pocked with large cracks and are uneven, posing a health threat to the athletes who need practice for those events, Ewy said.

The current Barney Akers Gymnasium was opened in December 1975 and underwent some upgrades in 2007 with new bleachers, but does not meet ADA (American With Disabilities Act) requirements for access to the gym's upper level. Syracuse's second gym, which still has the same floor as it did when it opened in February 1941.

The new proposed gymnasium would seat approximately 1,650 persons and would have four basketball locker rooms and also a locker room for the SHS football team. It would house a weight room and cardiovascular workout room. Those will be open to the public, as will an indoor walking track on the upper level. Plans call for elementary physical education classes to utilize the facility during the first two years to add the number of students who can be counted in the state funding formula under the new facilities weighting program.

When Bridges became superintendent in the summer of 2012, he toured the Syracuse facilities — academic, as well as athletic — and came away with mixed feelings.

"I was impressed with the high school (opened in 1999 and which will have its bonds paid off in September)," Bridges said of his tour. "The elementary (school) is in great shape (opened in early 1960s). The Barney Akers gym is in fine shape. But I was genuinely concerned at the facilities and the lack of support for having good facilities."

Bridges said he was appalled at the football field, bleachers, dressing rooms and the track facility and also was concerned about the aging vocational-ag building.

If the voters approve the bond issue, construction likely would start in August, first on the vocational-agriculture building.

"That's our first priority, the academic component of the proposal," Bridges said. "This will allow us to move forward with some cooperative agreements to work with Northwest Kansas Tech (Goodland)."

Bridges said that to have those programs in place, it will be necessary to have the new 4,000 square foot building in place.

"This is not just about athletics and physical education," Bridges said. "It's about academics, as well."

Plus, new rules and regulations that this new (Kansas education) bill has put in place in terms of education at the state level, will do away with new facilities weighting as of July 1.

The new facilities weighting is a formula that the state of Kansas uses in providing funds to school districts when they construct new facilities. Over the first two years of the opening of those facilities, the state returns a percentage of money, based upon student population and facilities usage, to the local district. In the case of Syracuse, it could mean as much as $200,000 per year for two years.

When Garden City opened its new high school in 2012-13, it received $1,920,000 in funds from the Kansas State Department of Education in each of the first two school years, according to USD 457 Superintendent Rick Atha.

"That money has gone into our general fund and can be used for furniture, equipment and other necessary items," Atha said.

In order to qualify for the new facilities weighting funds, school districts must raise their local option budget to at least 25 percent of the amount of state financial aid and for which the contractual bond obligations incurred by the district were approved on or before July 1 of this year.

Bridges said that USD 494 is now at 24 percent and will raise its LOB to 25 percent. He said the district has been in communication with state officials to certify that this will occur prior to the new facilities opening in 2015.

Atha also noted that when USD 457 presented its bond proposal to its citizens, it was advertised that the principal and interest payment from the state toward the bond would be 37 percent. That number is based upon the wealth of a school district. Since then, USD 457's poverty level has declined, and the percent that the state has been paying has now increased to 45 percent. That number can fluctuate up or down each year, Atha said. He said the district's bond representative, Piper and Jaffrey & Co. of Leawood, had told him recently about the increased percentage of the state's share of the payment.

"You're still paying the same principal and interest on the bond, it's just who's paying it," Atha said. "It helps us. Our local taxpayers are paying less."

Lehman, who oversees the Syracuse district's activities and athletics programs, said the bond proposal offers voters an opportunity to invest in the future of the county's youth, and community.

Bridges said that despite the poor track facilities, there were 88 kids out for the program this spring (31 in high school, 57 in junior high).

"That's a record. These kids are excited," Bridges said.

Davis, a 1976 graduate of SHS, said he felt a responsibility to get involved in support of the bond issue to ensure future generations the same opportunity that he and others of his day enjoyed.

"You know, it takes a good hospital and a good school to build a community and keep it vibrant," Davis said in a telephone interview. "It's my responsibility to help pay for that. My parents and my grandparents did the same for our generation of students.

"Being in business, I kind of look at it like this," Davis said, "when somebody comes in to buy a car from me and the car has 80,000 miles on it, they don't buy another car that has 80,000 miles on it. You get newer, you get better. The same goes with facilities that will benefit the students and the community."

The locker rooms, weight room and cardiovascular rooms on the lower level are all safe rooms, built to specifications to provide safety for tornadoes, both for students and the community.

Ewy, perhaps, has as keen an insight into the track and football facilities as anybody, having served as the school's track and cross country coach for 38 years. He also has served as an assistant football coach.

"We'll have an opportunity to host (Hi-Plains League) middle school and high school meets, including a regional in a few years. Basketball tournaments will be more attractive to bring in," Ewy said.

Ewy echoed the earlier sentiments of Bridges and Lehman.

"This will help the communty in so many ways," Ewy said.

our own meet, Hi-Plains divisional meets and then we're talking to Tribune about each of us hosting a meet in the early part of the spring," Ewy said. "In a couple of years, we hope to have a chance to host a regional track. It will enhance the kids' performances, and we've got more kids coming out in anticipation that they will be able to compete on a new track, and other new facilities."

The economic impact on the community also was not lost on Ewy.

"We get in the rotation for the Hi-Plains League (basketball) tournament and that will bring more people and more money into town," Ewy said. "The new ag building also will attract more people, and the cooperative venture with Northwest Kansas Tech provides a multitude of business opportunities for our industries in the area. The economic development possibilities are huge. Now is the time to do this kind of project."

Bridges, Lehman, Davis and Ewy all have said that the response at most of the public meetings has been positive. Still, there will be detractors.

"I see this bond issue as a tipping point for this district and this community," Bridges said. "If we go forward, we go forward in a positive way for the students and community. If we don't, we go backward and we stand a chance to lose families. This is that important."

"Anytime you are looking at change, it's tough for people," Lehman said. "People typically don't like change. We asked people to get involved and to give us a lot of ideas that would be good for everyone. We've got a good array of people on the committee, and they've done a great job of giving the community a project that can meet a lot of important needs."

Ewy echoed the sentiments of both Bridges and Lehman.

"This will help the community in so many different ways," Ewy said. "The community will be able to use every single facility that is built. There are so many positive components. I'm really glad we have the academic component. This area survives on the ag economy, and we've set up an advisory board to include potential education for the dairies, plant sciences and any ag-related business. It gets kids ready. Adults who want to perhaps change careers can take classes in this facility. Our kids, our adults deserve to have facilities like this."

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