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Kirk, Karl, what were you thinking?


Bill Bleakley January 1st, 2009

At its last meeting, the Oklahoma City Public Schools Board received a recommendation from its superintendent, Karl Springer, to not sell $196 million in school bonds authorized by a record margin of ...

At its last meeting, the Oklahoma City Public Schools Board received a recommendation from its superintendent, Karl Springer, to not sell $196 million in school bonds authorized by a record margin of victory in the district's 2007 bond election.

Following the superintendent's recommendation, board chair Kirk Humphreys recessed the meeting and held a press conference to declare there were flaws in the bond issue that threatened the district's credibility and the district had greatly exceeded its bonding capacity.

There had been no prior public discussion of this extraordinary move, and the board, which had little advance notice, was virtually blindsided. Fortunately, the board prudently declined to act on the superintendent's recommendation, requiring more information and discussion.

Editorials appearing in the daily paper for several days after the meeting assailed the situation as "inexcusable," the result of a "lack of leadership" and that "this mistake erodes the very credibility" the district has worked hard to build. The newspaper then heralded Humphreys and Springer for going public with "the mistake."

Here's the deal. The 2007 bond issue was developed by a citizen and district effort to fall into place as the MAPS for Kids bond issue nears completion. Portions of the 2007 bond issue fund the district's ongoing technology, transportation and safety/security needs. The greatest share of its proceeds fund the building of gymnasiums and classrooms at the district's elementary schools.

The MAPS for Kids program lacked the funds for these important improvements, which will help address the epidemic of childhood obesity and provide classrooms for the district's expanding kindergarten program.

Oklahoma school districts can sell bonds for capital needs as long as those bonds actually issued and sold do not exceed 10 percent of the valuation of the taxable property within the district, which is referred to as "bonding capacity."

Voters in 2007 authorized the sale of bonds in excess of the district's bonding capacity, as they did with MAPS for Kids. These approved bonds are then issued and sold as other bonds mature and are paid off.

Based upon bonding capacity projections made in late 2007, the authorized bonds can be issued and paid off during a 10- to 11-year term, similar to the payoff period for the MAPS for Kids bonds.

Springer and Humphreys stated that the public was promised the 2007 bond projects would be completed over a five-year period and the bond issue will exceed the district's bonding capacity. Yet the resolution calling for the bond election contains no provision for a five-year completion.

Since the school district can't legally campaign in bond elections, the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce organized a district-wide campaign in support of the 2007 bond election. A complete review of the campaign materials fails to find any reference to a five-year completion target or any other such timeline.

Springer expressed concern about inflation, yet the cost projections were based on escalating 2007 prices, which are now being suppressed by the current global economic conditions. In addition, interest generated by the bond proceeds until they are expended offset inflationary price increases to some degree.

So what were these men thinking? This is a sound bond issue. Hopefully, their actions are the result of inexperience and there are no hidden motives for their actions to change a legitimate bond issue. It is their actions that may cause harm to the district.

A great many civic and business leaders contributed substantial time and money to present this bond issue to the public. The public, in turn, overwhelmingly approved the bond issue, recognizing the immediate need for gymnasiums and classrooms in elementary schools and to follow up with the district's capital needs beyond MAPS for Kids.

The Board of Education should make its own careful and thorough review of this situation before it considers following the superintendent's and board chair's recommendation that contravenes the overwhelming will of citizens expressed in the 2007 bond issue election.

Bleakley is publisher of Oklahoma Gazette.

 
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