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$264 million SMSD bond issue promises upgrades, more teachers

SMSD school bond ballot
Posted at 6:33 PM, Jan 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-21 19:38:29-05

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — The Shawnee Mission School District said, if passed, a $264 million bond will help them improve education for students.

The district will use the money from the bond to rebuild five elementary schools, implement security and restrooms upgrades, improve learning spaces, and renovate the early childhood center and the career and tech center.

The five elementary schools to be replaced are: Westwood View, Pawnee, John Diemer, Tomahawk, and Rushton.

What stands out most about this bond to many parents and teachers is the district's promise to hire more middle and high school teachers.

"You can count on this board," David Smith, spokesperson for SMSD, said. "In our negotiations last year, that was one of the things that came out of it ... a commitment by the board to do that, and this is a mechanism we're able to do it by, so the community can count on that."

Maintenance and custodial salaries will move from the operating fund to the capital fund, freeing up money for more teachers.

Shawnee Mission teachers have been teaching six out of seven hours for several years with more students, when other Johnson County districts are still teaching five. The extra hour also increased workload without additional pay. Teachers are demanding this must change.

Drew Baranowski was an English teacher at Shawnee Mission South for 14 years and left education two years ago. His students increased from 110 to 165 the same year teachers went from five hours to six.

"That was an extra work week that was just goodwill on the teacher's part," Baranowski said. "An extra hour they were in their classroom, or an extra hour they were sitting at their dining room table after they put their kids to bed grading papers or trying to figure out what to do."

This is why Baranowski said he quit teaching. He believes the bond will pass, but it comes after many other teachers have also left.

"This should have been something in the conversation four or five years ago instead of, 'Uh oh we better close the door before anyone else runs out the back,'" Baranowski said.

Parents and teachers have criticized the district for increasing administrative salaries but only increasing teachers' by 1%.

A contentious meeting last year that finalized a new teacher contract pushed salary and workload to the forefront.

Smith said this bond will not go toward administration.

"Under Superintendent Fulton, we've actually reduced the administrative footprint on the district in order to put more resources into classrooms," Smith said.

Because the bond would pay for more teachers, it would also provide personalized learning plans for each student. Smith said the personalized plans will better prepare students for college and beyond because they'll have more interpersonal skills.

"We know kids learn differently. They have different goals and we have to be able to personalize teaching and learning," Smith said. "To do that, teachers need to change how they teach, they need to develop new skills learn how [to reach every child]."

The bond would translate into an extra $8 per year for homeowners within the district for every $100,000 of property they own.

Voters approved a $223 million bond in 2015 that went toward facility upgrades.

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This graph from Education First Shawnee Mission, an advocacy and watchdog group, shows Shawnee Mission School District has the lowest mill levy rate among area schools. A bond will increase it from 52.115 to 52.8 if approved.

Liz Benditt with Education First Shawnee Mission, an advocacy and watchdog group, said people should consider that Shawnee Mission has the lowest mill levy rate in the county and the bond will increase it from 52.115 to 52.8.

"As the cost of overall supporting our teachers, students, district increases, it's logical to me that we take these very very mild increases in mills in order to fund these projects," Benditt said.

She said although the district has had problems with communicating with parents about COVID-19, she believes they will keep their promise about teachers. If they don't, Benditt said, voters will make their voices heard at the next school board election.

"We really believe our teachers deserve more time for planning, more time for collaboration, more time for grading — that it just overall benefits all our students to give our teachers more time," Benditt said.

Mail-in ballots are due Jan. 26. The deadline to register to vote was Dec. 28.

Smith said if the bond issue does not pass this time, the district will come back with a similar proposal in a few years.

"We took at all our facility needs for the next 20 years and we did that starting about five years ago," Smith said. "We have about $750 million worth of needs. We've laid out a plan to go for this bond and future bonds to meet these needs in a way that doesn't put a significant burden on taxpayers."

The bond would also fund roof, asphalt, and HVAC replacements.