Two representatives from Yes4Schools, the committee promoting Dorchester Two's $179 million bond referendum, sat down with Patch and concerned voters Thursday at Coastal Coffee Roasters.
Coffee with the Candidates is 4 p.m. Thursdays.
The next Coffee with the Candidates is 4 p.m. Oct. 18 at Coastal Coffee and features Bill Hearn, running for reelection of Dorchester County Council District 6.
Here is a recap of Thursday's conversation with Robby Robbins and district financial officer Allyson Duke:
Q: Why is this referendum needed, and why now?
Robbins: If you look at the state of schools, it's pretty obvious. And there has not been a better time to finance major capital projects then right now. There are low interest rates. There are people who are still enrolling in our school system, even in a down economy. You also have some capital needs that have been deferred — the bricks and mortar. The district has a plan to take care of that.
Q: Is now the right time to raise taxes?
Robbins: Nobody enjoys doing that, but unfortunately they don't give us any options. There are no other funding options for capital projects in the district. The only option we have right now is the way we're doing it. Lease-purchases and other creative financing that has allowed the newer schools in our district does not exist anymore. Nobody enjoys it, but I would equate this list of school needs to the roads referendum. They have identified a set of needs, and have a plan to fix them.
Q: Why can't the district just tighten the belt to pay for these projects?
Robbins: There are all kinds of arguments we can debate about how money is spent, but we're not talking about operating costs, we're talking about capital costs and building needs. Having career and technology centers in high schools sends a tremendous message to industry trying to recruit. The plan for the money is very well-thought out, and this is something that promotes education.
Q: Will buildings really make a different in education?
Robbins: We have been beat up on because we are successful, because our kids have succeeded despite low budgets. The state sees us being successful and we don't have a problem. That's not true. If you go to these schools right now, there is no way you can tell me these teachers and students are performing at an optimum level. Teaching fine arts in a building that is not acoustically pleasing is difficult. There are serious safety hazards like roof collapses that endanger our children. We ought to give them an opportunity to excel.
Q: What about financing and the debt of this bond?
Duke: It will take 20 years to pay off, and it will cost $300 million to borrow. We're building very big buildings but it might not be enough to keep up with growth, so it is possible we will have to add to the debt again. The district has $190 million in debt now from the last four schools we've built, and we pay off $14 to $15 million each year.
Q: If so many current buildings need repairs, does that say something about the district's operating budget and improper maintenance over time?
Duke: We have maintained our schools but it's tough when you don't get that much on a yearly basis. We've been patching and patching. We do a lot with our operations budget but it's not enough. The referendum should help get us up to date. Rooves last a long time, thank goodness.
Q: If the original projected need was $363 million, isn't this bond for $179 million falling short of what the district actually needs?
Robbins: I have to believe the school board got a list of what they know they need to do, and came up with a number they could sell to the public. The 2003 referendum failed. They have to address school improvement from a functionality standpoint and a political standpoint.
Q: Is this referendum just too much focus on the short term without paying attention to the long term? For example, are we taking on too much debt to be sustainable?
Duke: Whenever we issue bonds, we ave to go through the rating system. We have a AA rating. There is always a risk in taking on debt, but the risk of not building the schools is greater. You could also look at that hurting our area. It's a gamble either way.
Robbins: You can play the what-if game but it won't change this list of needs. The number of safety and security hazards at the schools, and the liability issues at our schools are a priority for solving.
Q: What about retirees and people without children? How would paying higher taxes help them?
Robbins: A solid school district is a solid foundation for a community. All you have to do is travel around the state and see areas where they don't have a good school district and the areas that do. Having the ability to educate children and create an educated workforce is essential to economic development and a prosperous community.