Tag Archives: Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey

Special interests will capture south-central Kansas planning

Special interest groups are likely to co-opt the government planning process started in south-central Kansas as these groups see ways to benefit from the plan. The public choice school of economics and political science has taught us how special interest groups seek favors from government at enormous costs to society, and we will see this at play over the next few years.

Sedgwick County has voted to participate in a HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant. While some justified their votes in favor of the plan because “it’s only a plan,” once the planning process begins, special interests plot to benefit themselves at the expense of the general public. Once the plan is formed, it’s nearly impossible to revise it, no matter how evident the need.

An example of how much reverence is given to government plans comes right from the U.S. Supreme Court in the decision Kelo v. New London, in which the Court decided that government could use the power of eminent domain to take one person’s property and transfer it to someone else for the purposes of economic development. In his opinion for the Court, Justice Stevens cited the plan: “The City has carefully formulated an economic development plan that it believes will provide appreciable benefits to the community.” Here we see the importance of the plan and due reverence given to it.

Stevens followed up, giving even more weight to the plan: “To effectuate this plan, the City has invoked a state statute that specifically authorizes the use of eminent domain to promote economic development. Given the comprehensive character of the plan, the thorough deliberation that preceded its adoption, and the limited scope of our review, it is appropriate for us, as it was in Berman, to resolve the challenges of the individual owners, not on a piecemeal basis, but rather in light of the entire plan. Because that plan unquestionably serves a public purpose, the takings challenged here satisfy the public use requirement of the Fifth Amendment.”

To Stevens, the fact that the plan was comprehensive was a factor in favor of its upholding. The sustainable communities plan, likewise, is nothing but comprehensive, as described by county manager Bill Buchanan in a letter to commissioners: “[the plan will] consist of multi-jurisdictional planning efforts that integrate housing, land use, economic and workforce development, transportation, and infrastructure investments in a manner that empowers jurisdictions to consider the interdependent challenges of economic prosperity, social equity, energy use and climate change, and public health and environmental impact.”

That pretty much covers it all. When you’re charged with promoting economic prosperity, defending earth against climate change, and promoting public health, there is no limit to the types of laws you might consider.

Who will plan?

The American Planning Association praised the Court’s notice of the importance of a plan, writing “This decision underscores the importance for a community to have a comprehensive development plan formulated through a democratic planning process with meaningful public participation by everyone.”

But these plans are rarely by and for the public. Almost always the government planning process is taken over and captured by special interests. We see this in public schools, where the planning and campaigning for new facilities is taken over by architectural and construction firms that see school building as a way to profit. It does not matter to them whether the schools are needed.

Our highway planning is hijacked by construction firms that stand to benefit, whether or not new roads are actually needed.

Our planning process for downtown Wichita is run by special interest groups that believe that downtown has a special moral imperative, and another group that sees downtown as just another way to profit at taxpayer expense. Both believe that taxpayers across Wichita, Kansas, and even the entire country must pay to implement their vision. As shown in Kansas and Wichita need pay-to-play laws the special interests that benefit from public spending on downtown make heavy political campaign contributions to nearly all members of the Wichita City Council. They don’t have a political ideology. They contribute only because they know council members will be voting to give them money.

In Wichita’s last school bond election, 72 percent of the contributions, both in-kind and cash, was given by contractors, architects, engineering firms and others who directly stand to benefit from new school construction, no matter whether schools are actually needed. The firm of Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture led the way in making these contributions. It’s not surprising that this firm was awarded a no-bid contract for plan management services for the bond issue valued at $3.7 million. This firm will undoubtedly earn millions more for those projects on which it serves as architect.

The special interest groups that benefit from highway construction: They formed a group called Economic Lifelines. It says it was formed to “provide the grassroots support for Comprehensive Transportation Programs in Kansas.” Its motto is “Stimulating economic vitality through leadership in infrastructure development.”

A look at the membership role, however, lets us know whose economic roots are being stimulated. Membership is stocked with names like AFL-CIO, Foley Equipment Company, Heavy Constructors Association of Greater Kansas City, Kansas Aggregate & Concrete Associations, Kansas Asphalt Pavement Association, Kansas Contractors Association, Kansas Society of Professional Engineers, and PCA South Central Cement Promotion Association. Groups and companies like these have an economic interest in building more roads and highways, whether or not the state actually needs them.

The planners themselves are a special interest group, too. They need jobs. Like most government bureaucrats, they “profit” from increasing their power and sphere of influence, and by expansion of their budgets and staffs. So when Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Skelton asks a professional planner questions about the desirability of planning, what answer does he think he will get? It’s not that the planners are not honest people. But they have a vested economic and professional interest in seeing that we have more government planning, not less.

And we have evidence that planners watch out for themselves. It is not disputed that this planning grant benefits Regional Economic Area Partnership (REAP). Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau says that John Schlegel, Wichita’s Director of Planning, told him that “acceptance of this grant will take REAP to another level, because right now they are struggling, and this will help plot the course for REAP.” He said that REAP, which is housed at the Hugo Wall School of Public Affairs at Wichita State University, needs to expand its role and authority in order to give it “something to do.”

We see that REAP is another special interest group seeking to benefit itself. In this case, our best hope is that REAP engages in merely make-work, that the plan it produces is put on a shelf and ignored, and that the only harm to us is the $1.5 million cost of the plan.

By the way, did you know that Sedgwick County Commissioner Dave Unruh, who voted in favor of the plan that benefits REAP, is now chairman of REAP? Special interest groups know how to play the political game.

In Kansas, planning will be captured by special interests

The government planning process started in south-central Kansas will likely be captured by special interest groups that see ways to benefit from the plan. The public choice school of economics and political science has taught us how special interest groups seek favors from government at enormous costs to society, and we will see this at play again over the next few years.

This week the Sedgwick County Commission voted to participate in a HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant. While some justified their votes in favor of the plan because “it’s only a plan,” once the planning process begins, special interests plot how to benefit themselves at the expense of the general public. Then once the plan is formed, it’s nearly impossible to revise it, no matter how evident the need.

An example of how much reverence is given to government plans comes right from the U.S. Supreme Court in the decision Kelo v. New London, in which the Court decided that government could use the power of eminent domain to take one person’s property and transfer it to someone else for the purposes of economic development. In his opinion for the Court, Justice Stevens cited the plan: “The City has carefully formulated an economic development plan that it believes will provide appreciable benefits to the community.” Here we see the importance of the plan and due reverence given to it.

Stevens followed up, giving even more weight to the plan: “To effectuate this plan, the City has invoked a state statute that specifically authorizes the use of eminent domain to promote economic development. Given the comprehensive character of the plan, the thorough deliberation that preceded its adoption, and the limited scope of our review, it is appropriate for us, as it was in Berman, to resolve the challenges of the individual owners, not on a piecemeal basis, but rather in light of the entire plan. Because that plan unquestionably serves a public purpose, the takings challenged here satisfy the public use requirement of the Fifth Amendment.”

To Stevens, the fact that the plan was comprehensive was a factor in favor of its upholding. The sustainable communities plan, likewise, is nothing but comprehensive, as described by county manager Bill Buchanan in a letter to commissioners: “[the plan will] consist of multi-jurisdictional planning efforts that integrate housing, land use, economic and workforce development, transportation, and infrastructure investments in a manner that empowers jurisdictions to consider the interdependent challenges of economic prosperity, social equity, energy use and climate change, and public health and environmental impact.”

That pretty much covers it all. When you’re charged with promoting economic prosperity, defending earth against climate change, and promoting public health, there is no limit to the types of laws you might consider.

Who will plan?

The American Planning Association praised the Court’s notice of the importance of a plan, writing “This decision underscores the importance for a community to have a comprehensive development plan formulated through a democratic planning process with meaningful public participation by everyone.”

But these plans are rarely by and for the public. Almost always the government planning process is taken over and captured by special interests. We see this in public schools, where the planning and campaigning for new facilities is taken over by architectural and construction firms that see school building as a way to profit. It does not matter to them whether the schools are needed.

Our highway planning is hijacked by construction firms that stand to benefit, whether or not new roads are actually needed.

Our planning process for downtown Wichita is run by special interest groups that believe that downtown has a special moral imperative, and another group that sees downtown as just another way to profit at taxpayer expense. Both believe that taxpayers across Wichita, Kansas, and even the entire country must pay to implement their vision. As shown in Kansas and Wichita need pay-to-play laws the special interests that benefit from public spending on downtown make heavy political campaign contributions to nearly all members of the Wichita City Council. They don’t have a political ideology. They contribute only because they know council members will be voting to give them money.

In Wichita’s last school bond election, 72 percent of the contributions, both in-kind and cash, was given by contractors, architects, engineering firms and others who directly stand to benefit from new school construction, no matter whether schools are actually needed. The firm of Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture led the way in making these contributions. It’s not surprising that this firm was awarded a no-bid contract for plan management services for the bond issue valued at $3.7 million. This firm will undoubtedly earn millions more for those projects on which it serves as architect.

The special interest groups that benefit from highway construction: They formed a group called Economic Lifelines. It says it was formed to “provide the grassroots support for Comprehensive Transportation Programs in Kansas.” Its motto is “Stimulating economic vitality through leadership in infrastructure development.”

A look at the membership role, however, lets us know whose economic roots are being stimulated. Membership is stocked with names like AFL-CIO, Foley Equipment Company, Heavy Constructors Association of Greater Kansas City, Kansas Aggregate & Concrete Associations, Kansas Asphalt Pavement Association, Kansas Contractors Association, Kansas Society of Professional Engineers, and PCA South Central Cement Promotion Association. Groups and companies like these have an economic interest in building more roads and highways, whether or not the state actually needs them.

The planners themselves are a special interest group, too. They need jobs. Like most government bureaucrats, they “profit” from increasing their power and influence, and by expansion of their budgets and staffs. So when Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Skelton asks a professional planner questions about the desirability of planning, what answer does he think he will get? It’s not that the planners are not honest people. But they have a vested economic and professional interest in seeing that we have more government planning, not less.

And we have evidence that planners watch out for themselves. It is not disputed that this planning grant benefits Regional Economic Area Partnership (REAP). Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau says that John Schlegel, Wichita’s Director of Planning, told him that “acceptance of this grant will take REAP to another level, because right now they are struggling, and this will help plot the course for REAP.” He said that REAP, which is housed at the Hugo Wall School of Public Affairs at Wichita State University, needs to expand its role and authority in order to give it “something to do.”

We see that REAP is another special interest group seeking to benefit itself. In this case, our best hope is that REAP engages in merely make-work, that the plan it produces is put on a shelf and ignored, and that the only harm to us is the $1.5 million cost of the plan.

By the way, did you know that Sedgwick County Commissioner Dave Unruh, who voted in favor of the plan that benefits REAP, is a board member of REAP, and may become the next chairman? Special interest groups know how to play the political game, that’s for sure.

Pay-to-play laws are needed in Wichita and Kansas

In the wake of scandals, some states and cities have passed “pay-to-play” laws. These laws often prohibit political campaign contributions by those who seek government contracts, or the laws may impose special disclosure requirements.

Many people make campaign contributions to candidates whose ideals and goals they share. This is an important part of our political process. But when reading campaign finance reports for members of the Wichita City Council, one sees the same names appearing over and over, often making the maximum allowed contribution to candidates. Their spouses also contribute.

And when one looks at the candidates these people contribute to, you notice that often there’s no commonality to the political goals and ideals of the candidates. Some people contribute equally to liberal and conservative council members. Then, when these people appear in the news after having received money from the Wichita City Council, it snaps into place: These campaign donors are not donating to those whose ideals they agree with. They’re donating so they can line their own pockets.

Some states and cities have taken steps to reduce this harmful practice. New Jersey is notable for its New Jersey Local Unit Pay-To-Play Law. In a nutshell, the law affects many local units of government and the awarding of contracts having a value of over $17,500. The law affects contracts awarded by other than a “fair and open process,” which basically means a contract process open to bidding. For other contracts, here is the summary of the law:

A municipal or county government agency cannot award a contract without using a fair and open process if the contractor …

  • is a contributor to a candidate committee or a political party committee where a member of the party is serving in an elective public office of that municipality or county, and, either …
  • made “reportable” contributions (those in excess of $300) during the year prior to the award, and/or …
  • makes contributions during the life of the contract.

The New Jersey law requires that businesses seeking government contracts certify they have not made contributions that would bar them from eligibility. It also contains provisions that contributions from a business owner’s spouse and children will be deemed to be from the business itself. For corporations, the contributions of principals, partners, officers, and directors, and their spouses, are considered to be from the corporation itself for purposes of the law.

Alabama, Connecticut, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Ohio, and South Dakota are other states with some form of pay-to-play laws. Some of these are being challenged in the courts.

It’s not only states that have such laws. Cities, too, are passing them.

In 2009 Dallas passed a law, as described in a post on the Pay to Play Law Blog: “The ethics package contains numerous changes to existing lobbyist registration and disclosure requirements, City Council zoning powers and the disclosure of gifts to Council members. Most relevant to the pay-to-play space is that anyone bidding on a city contract is now prohibited from making donations during the bid period. Additionally, ‘major’ zoning applicants can no longer make contributions to Council members during the window which begins on the date of public notice of the zoning case, and which ends 60 days after the zoning case is resolved. Such changes are not too surprising in this instance, given that the scandal involving Hill revolved around favorable treatment for developers.”

Notably, the Dallas law was in response to special treatment for real estate developers — the very issue Wichita is facing now as it prepares to pour millions into the pockets of a small group of favored — and highly subsidized — downtown developers.

Smaller cities, too, have these laws. A charter provision of the city of Santa Ana, in Orange County, California, states: “A councilmember shall not participate in, nor use his or her official position to influence, a decision of the City Council if it is reasonably foreseeable that the decision will have a material financial effect, apart from its effect on the public generally or a significant portion thereof, on a recent major campaign contributor.” The population of Santa Ana is 324,528, which is just a little smaller than Wichita.

But Kansas has no such law. Certainly Wichita does not, where pay-to-play is seen by many citizens as a way of life. Those who want money from the council see it that way.

And citizens may remember the 2008 campaign for a bond issue for USD 259, the Wichita public school district. In my reporting of the campaign contributions made in support of the bond spending, I wrote: “One analysis finds that 72% of the contributions, both in-kind and cash, was given by contractors, architects, engineering firms and others who directly stand to benefit from the new construction.”

The firm of Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture was a standout contributor to the bond effort, both in terms of cash contributions and in-kind contributions. Not surprisingly, that firm was awarded a contract for plan management services for the bond issue. The value of this contract is one percent of the value of the bond issue, or $3.7 million, and the firm will undoubtedly earn millions more for those projects on which it serves as architect.

In Kansas, campaign finance reports are filed by candidates and available to citizens, although some have problems with the timing of the filings. But many politicians don’t want these contributions discussed, at least in public. Recently Wichita Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) expressed concern over the potential award of a $6 million construction contract, paid for with city funds, without an open bidding process. The contract is likely to go to Key Construction, a firm whose principals — and spouses — regularly appear on campaign finance reports, making the maximum allowed contribution to a wide variety of candidates.

For expressing his concern, O’Donnell was roundly criticized by many other council members, and especially by Mayor Carl Brewer. Video of the mayor’s remarks may be viewed at Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer addresses critics.

I can understand how council members don’t want to discuss their campaign contributions from those they’re about to give money to. It stinks. It causes citizens to be cynical of their government and withdraw from participation in civic affairs. It causes government to grow. It leads to more government planning of our lives, as is happening in Wichita. Pay-to-play laws can help.

Wichita BOE’s Nolan expresses concern

At Monday’s meeting of the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, board members expressed frustration over the mishandling of a construction contract. It’s not clear where fault lies, or whether the board has any interest in finding where that fault should be laid.

At the meeting, board member Lanora Nolan expressed dismay that none of the public speakers mentioned the kids. The school district has a larger responsibility than just the education of children, however. It needs to be responsible to taxpayers — the “adult issues” Nolan bemoans.

She also said the delay of the fields is not in the best interest of kids. I hope she looks into who is responsible for this mishandling of this process.

She wants to “get the legal boundaries changed” so that the board is never in the position of not being able to vote on what’s best for kids. It may not occur to her that if the process had been managed correctly from the start, the board probably could have voted at that meeting on a contract that would get new fields for the fall.

Citizen comment about Nolan’s remarks that I received included these:

“The mindset that what is best for the kids should override how much something costs, according to Nolan.”

“The truth of the matter is, the Wichita school board approved the bidding process in a manner, as explained by their own attorney, that was in violation of state law, and therefore he advised the board to withdraw its approval of the turf contract. If the ‘kids’ were damaged in any way, it would appear to me that the responsibility for that damage should rest solely with the governing body that voted to approve what turned out to be a potentially legally flawed contract bid.”

“Anyone who speaks up for the people who pay USD 259 taxes is subjected to anger and scorn from the board. I can’t recall any board member ever expressing any concern about the parents, grandparents, and/or other taxpayers who struggle to pay for the necessities of food, clothing, and shelter while facing ever increasing taxes courtesy of the USD 259 board. The board loves to talk about children from low income families in the district who are eligible for free or reduced lunches. … Did anyone on the board ever consider the possibility that high taxes might be a major cause of low family income and poverty?”

“I believe Ms. Nolan’s rant should have been more appropriately directed towards herself, the school board, and the people the board holds responsible for creating or managing board contracts. The board approved what turned out to be a flawed and — what its own attorney confirmed — an illegal contract. Who was responsible with this error? Does the board’s attorney bear any responsibility for this error? Do the board’s attorneys have errors and omission insurance the board can levy against? Who was responsible for creating the turf project specifications? Was there an architectural firm responsible for this project? What responsibility do they bear?”

Answering this question, I spoke with Joe Johnson of Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture, the firm that is managing the overall bond project. He told me that his firm wasn’t involved in this turf vendor selection process, and they’re not taking their 1% management fee for this. Perhaps if this firm had been involved this mess could have been avoided — an example where Nolan’s warning of “buying on the cheap” might apply.

Wichita school board members should not be re-elected

Next Tuesday, four members of the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, seek to be elected again to their current posts.

These members — Lanora Nolan, Lynn Rogers, Connie Dietz and Betty Arnold — are part of a board and school district that is increasingly out-of-step with education reforms that are working in other parts of the country. Their policies and actions are harmful to both Wichita schoolchildren and Wichita taxpayers.

At the time when most of the country is starting to realize that quality teachers, not the number of teachers, is what makes the biggest difference in student outcomes, the Wichita school district is going the wrong way. The bond issue, with its focus on reducing class size, will force the district to hire more teachers. This makes it more likely that schoolchildren in Wichita will be taught by poorly-performing teachers.

Its contract with its teachers union forbids any type of merit pay that might induce the best teachers to stay in teaching. Instead, all teachers are paid the same. Only length of service and extra education credentials allow teachers to earn more. Now researchers have found that length of service and the credentials earned at university schools of education make very little difference in student outcomes.

Across the country parents can take advantage of school choices programs such as charter schools, vouchers, and tax credits. These programs give parents — instead of school administrators and politicians — choice as to where to send their children to school. In some cases, they allow parents to decide how their own tax dollars should be spent. The Wichita school district, including its board and the incumbent candidates that stand for election next week, are firmly against these type of programs that have benefited many students and parents. They prefer a government monopoly.

The Wichita school district and its board are miles behind other school districts and governmental agencies regarding transparency and openness. Its recent search for a new superintendent was conducted in such a secretive manner that even the Wichita Eagle’s Rhonda Holman — one of the district’s several apologists at that newspaper — was critical.

The district and board’s attitude towards citizens is nothing less than hostile. In particular, board member, now board president, Lynn Rogers has told citizens that records requests are a burden to the district. When citizens ask for evidence of claims the district makes, Rogers advises them to use Google to look things up for themselves.

The board gets even little things wrong. For example, the board’s agenda that’s posted on the USD 259 website holds appendixes, which are usually attached files that hold additional information such as a Powerpoint presentation. But these files are removed quickly after the meeting. Most governmental agencies leave them available for eternity.

Three board members, in their joint campaign materials, state they are proud of 11 years of rising test scores. Across the country school districts and states have watered-down testing standards in response to political pressure to produce rising test scores. Is this the case in Wichita and Kansas? We don’t know. But as scores rise on tests administered by the state, they remain unchanged on the national tests that are immune from local political pressures.

The fact that all of the candidates facing election challenges have advertised jointly is evidence of another severe problem on the Wichita board of education: Rarely is there controversy or evidence of independent thought by board members. Consider the bond issue from last year, which passed narrowly (51 percent to 49 percent) when voted on by the public. Board members were unanimous in their support of the bond issue. What are the odds of that? (Well, board member Jeff Davis initially dissented, but only because he thought his district didn’t get its fair share. His straying from the board’s groupthink mentality was short-lived, however, as at the next meeting he changed his vote.)

Then there’s the bond issue from last year. One analysis found that 72% of the contributions, both in-kind and cash, came from contractors, architects, engineering firms and others who directly stand to benefit from the new construction. The board rewarded Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture for its efforts in passing the bond issue with a no-bid $3.7 million contract to manage the bond issue.

As large as the bond issue is, to board members it’s not enough. Board members started with a list of projects that totaled some $550 million. These projects are on the back burner, and as soon as this board senses the time is right, it will propose another bond issue. Count on it.

We should remember the board’s conduct during the election. Calling a special election to be held in May, the board delayed it when it appeared the political landscape was not in their favor — after their opponents had mobilized and spent resources. The board appeared to rely on a hapless citizen group during the summer months for recommendations. Despite the district’s denials, huge amounts of district resources, all provided by taxpayers, were used to promote the bond issue.

This Wichita school district and its board is an institution firmly rooted in and preferring a big-government style of education monopoly. It ignores evidence of reforms that work, preferring to remain beholden to special interests such as the teachers union, education bureaucrats, and firms that benefit from school construction. None of its members deserve re-election.

For Wichita school contracts, it helps to pay

USD 259, the Wichita public school district, has recently decided on some architects to award contracts to for work funded by the 2008 bond issue.

Citizens might have wondered why so many architectural and construction firms had such a high degree of interest in public schools. But these firms know that if you want to get contracts, it’s not required, but it sure helps to make some campaign contributions.

The following chart shows that while the correlation isn’t perfect, it helps to make a large contribution if you want to get a large contract. The outlier data point is Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture. This firm made the largest campaign contribution. It also snagged the project management contract for the bond issue. This contract was awarded without any competitive bidding. This contact pays the firm 1% of the total value of all bond projects, and no doubt helps the firm obtain the most lucrative architecture contracts, too.

And to think I was about to believe that it was all about the kids.

USD 259 contributions and contracts

Wichita school bond finance report omits a big contribution

Yesterday, Citizens Alliance for Responsible Education (CARE) filed their campaign finance report. This group was in favor of the bond issue to benefit USD 259, the Wichita public school district.

There are some interesting details in this report, but there’s one glaring omission: there’s no mention of the campaign contribution made by the taxpayers of USD 259.

The administration of USD 259 says they spent nothing on a campaign to pass the bond issue. They say what they did was merely an educational and informational campaign. But what USD 259 did had all the characteristics of a political campaign except the explicit appeal to vote “yes.” Anyone who saw the materials produced by USD 259 got the message loud and clear: vote yes for this bond.

The assertion that USD 259 ran an educational and informational campaign is ridiculous. The campaign materials contained nothing that was negative or even neutral towards the bond issue. Is that because no such facts exist? Of course not. An honest informational campaign would have given consideration to them. But that’s not what the Wichita school district wanted to provide.

Now I can understand architecture firms like Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture and construction companies making contributions to the bond issue campaign and not wanting negative or neutral information provided. These firms promoted the bond issue solely out of self-interest. They’ll design and construct buildings whether they’re useful or not.

But schools — their mission being education instead of politics and self-interest — should be different. Schools should seek to teach the truth, and the only way to do that is to provide balance. That’s not what the Wichita school district provided the public during the bond issue campaign.

We’ll probably never be able to learn how much USD 259 spent promoting the bond issue. In the future, when taxpayer-funded entities like USD 259 run informational campaigns, we’ll need a method for balanced information to get to the voters.

Click here to download CARE’s campaign finance report.

Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture Wins. Who Lost?

In what must be the most unsurprising news reported in Wichita this year, Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture was awarded the contract for plan management services for the USD 259 (Wichita public school district) bond issue. Their fee is one percent of the total of the bond issue, or about $3.7 million. If this contract is anything like the one from 2000, they can also bill expenses.

This is the same role this firm played in the 2000 bond issue, as reported in Wichita School District’s Favorite Architect Stands to Win Big.

It’s little too late to ask this question, but I wonder if any firm other than Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture was considered for this contract. Or, was there any thought given to competitive bidding for this contract?

Given this firm’s role in promoting the bond issue (the Wichita school district effectively outsourced the campaign to Joe Johnson, the head of this firm), there was little doubt as to who would get this contract. This raises a few questions:

First, did Joe Johnson and Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture believe this bond issue was in the best interests of Wichita’s schoolchildren and the citizens of the district, or is the bond issue just a way to earn fees?

Second, did Joe Johnson and Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture always know they’d be awarded this contract if the bond issue passed? Were they worried that some other firm might make a bid?

The close relationship between the Wichita school district and this firm raises suspicions that this is just another example of crony capitalism in Wichita.

Jeff Fluhr’s Decision

At the December 2, 2008 meeting of the Wichita City Council, Jeff Fluhr, the new president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, spoke on behalf of the expansion of the Center City South Redevelopment District, commonly known as the downtown Wichita arena TIF district.

Attending the meeting with him were several members of that organization’s board of directors, headed by Joe Johnson of Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture. This board, emblematic of the “good ol’ boy” network, is stocked with those who seek to profit in the halls of government power rather than in the marketplace where consumers rule. It’s easier that way — no pesky consumers with their varied wants and desires.

The problem Mr. Fluhr faces is that in order to lure developers to downtown Wichita, incentives must be offered. Now some on the Wichita city council act as though incentives come at no cost. The proceeds from TIF financing, they say, are used only for infrastructure, as though this is something the city is obliged to provide. But as I show in my post Many Wichita Developers Pay for Infrastructure, market-based developers pay for their infrastructure. The city doesn’t give away much to them.

The TIF developers, they being the political entrepreneurs, are privileged to use their own property taxes to pay for their infrastructure, and for other things, too. This sets up a situation where the city, through its attempts at centralized planning, thwarts the will of the people by forcing Wichitans to subsidize developers who are lured — “incentivized,” as one city council member put it — to develop where politicians want them to.

This sets up a tension. Citizens are starting to realize the reality of the transfer of wealth from taxpayers to the political entrepreneurs, and they don’t like it. They’re starting to realize that public/private partnerships mean the public takes the risk, and the “privates” earn the profits. This is far removed from capitalism, which is what we need to build the wealth of our city. “Crony capitalism” is a better term for the relationship between the TIF district developers and local government officials.

Then there’s the defect in the process surrounding the public hearing before the Wichita city council. As Randy Brown wrote about this meeting: “Among other transgressions, we had a mockery of the public hearing process rather than an open and transparent discussion of a contentious public issue.” Mr. Fluhr needs to decide if he’s on the side of open and transparent government, or whether he’s in favor of crony capitalism and the good ol’ boy network. If he would request that the City of Wichita withdraw this TIF district until a proper public hearing is held, we’d get a good indication of his thinking. Of course, if he doesn’t make such a request, we’ll know just as well.

Finally, Mr. Fluhr stated in his presentation to the Wichita city council: “[The TIF district] will greatly contribute to Wichita’s development as a destination river city, which will in turn enhance the economic vitality of downtown and the community at large.” (emphasis added)

I would ask that Mr. Fluhr and the citizens of Wichita familiarize themselves with the research to the contrary. A number of studies tell us that TIF districts, while good for the subsidized developers, are not a good deal for the city as a whole. As economists Dye and Merriman (see below) found out: “We find evidence that the non-TIF areas of municipalities that use TIF grow no more rapidly, and perhaps more slowly, than similar municipalities that do not use TIF.”

Kenneth A. Kriz: Tax Increment Financing: Its Effect on Local Government Finances
Dye, Richard and David Merriman: Tax Increment Financing: A Tool for Local Economic Development
Dye, Richard and David Merriman: The Effects of Tax Increment Financing on Economic Development
Danny Santivasci: Tax Increment Financing: Private Investment at the Expense of Local Community

Wichita school district’s favorite architect stands to win big

Shortly after USD 259 (the Wichita school district) passed a bond issue in 2000, a contract was formed between the district and its favorite architectural firm, Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture. The contract, portions of which you can read here, pays this firm one percent of the bond amount for “Project Management Services.” Plus expenses, I should add.

In addition, Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture earned huge fees for being the architect on many school buildings. Their contract with USD 259 for their role as the architect of Earhart school gives their fee as about $420,000. The construction cost of this school was given as $8.3 million, so that’s five percent to the architect.

In addition, this firm undoubtedly earned its one percent fee for project management services on this school, that fee earned by managing themselves.

So it’s little wonder that Joe Johnson and Kenton Cox of Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture are at the forefront of the effort to pass this bond issue. It means a great deal of money for their firm if the proposed bond issue passes this year.

But wait, you may be saying. Won’t this project management contract be put out to competitive bid?

Won’t the contracts for architectural services for each school project be competitively bid?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. Something tells me, however, that Joe Johnson already knows.

Raising Wichitans’ Taxes in a Recession is Not A Good Idea

“Democrat Barack Obama says he would delay rescinding President Bush’s tax cuts on wealthy Americans if he becomes the next president and the economy is in a recession, suggesting such an increase would further hurt the economy.” (Associated Press, September 7, 2008)

Contrary to assertions by Wichita school interim superintendent Martin Libhart and school board president Lynn Rogers, Wichita can’t tax and spend its way out of a recession that may or may not be forthcoming. Not even Barack Obama believes that, as shown in the news story quoted above.

Still, bond issue supporters say that’s what happened after the last school bond issue. There’s even a Wichita State University study to prove it.

(There’s no doubt that some individuals and firms did well after the last bond issue. No doubt Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture, one of the firms most prominently pushing for the current bond issue, fared very well.)

But what they don’t tell you is that the WSU study doesn’t account for the payment of the bond issue. All it looks at is the spending. Spending, of course, drives economic activity. If government spends money, economic activity happens. But without mentioning the cost, the study is meaningless.

In fact, it’s worse than meaningless. It’s dangerously misleading. It leads citizens to believe that government spending can save us from harm. If that’s true, why don’t we go for a bigger bond issue? Why stop at $370 million? Why not go for the full $550 million in needs that was identified?

In Wichita schools, smaller classes mean adding on — and subtracting

Today’s Wichita Eagle contains a story about the need for additional classroom space to support the initiative of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, to reduce class size.

Presenting to the board was Kenton Cox of Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture, the school district’s favorite architect. This firm stands to earn millions in fees and commissions if the bond issue passes. Their motives must always be kept in mind.

Smaller class sizes seem like a great idea. Teachers like them, as it means less work for them. Teachers unions like them, as it means more teachers paying union dues. Parents love them. Who doesn’t like the idea of more individual attention given to their child? This is the reasoning that Wichita school board member Barb Fuller uses, and mentions constantly.

But what does evidence tell us about the effect of small class sizes on student achievement? After all, that’s what counts. It’s not about the teachers or the parents. It’s about the students — or at least it should be.

The Tennessee STAR experiment is the most frequently cited evidence that small class sizes are better. But this study has many problems, and these are not mentioned by the education bureaucrats and teachers unions that rely on it.

For one thing, the study shows that incentives make a difference in education, something that many people deny. The teachers in the experiment knew that if it was judged a success they would get more funding for small class sizes in the future. Researcher Caroline Hoxby writes “More importantly, in the Tennessee STAR experiment, everyone involved knew that if the class-size reduction didn’t affect achievement, the experimental classes would return to their normal size and a general class-size reduction would not be funded by the legislature. In other words, principals and teachers had strong incentives to make the reduction work. Unfortunately, class-size reductions are never accompanied by such incentives when they are enacted as a policy.”

Researcher Eric Hanushek found these problems with STAR’s methodology, which serve to overstate benefits from class-size reduction:

  • Between 20 and 30 percent of the students quit the project each year, with less than half the original number remaining at the end.

  • The students who quit tended to be below-average achievers, giving the smaller classes a perceived boost in achievement.
  • No pretests were conducted on any students upon enrollment, which provided no benchmark to assess their level of achievement.
  • Neither the teachers nor the schools chosen for the project were selected randomly.

So relying on the Tennessee STAR experiment as a basis for formulating policy in the Wichita school district is unwise.

What about the new teachers that will be hired to support smaller class sizes? If the district hires the most-qualified teachers first, then by definition the new teachers to be hired will be the least qualified. So more students will be in classrooms lead by less-qualified teachers.

Further, class size reduction is very expensive. What Wichita school bond supporters don’t tell us is that the bond issue is just the start of the costs of class size reduction. There are ongoing costs: maintenance, utilities, janitorial service, and the personnel costs of more teachers, teachers aids, and instructional coaches.

Reducing class size is great for teachers and their union, school administrators, architects, and construction companies. But for taxpayers and students, it’s a different story.

Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture: Wichita School District’s Favorite Architect Has Hand in Everything

Recently I obtained the contract for the construction of Stucky Middle School for USD 259, the Wichita public school district. Something I observed is that Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture was not the architect. Instead, it was Gossen Livingston Associates, Inc.

Gossen Livingston was one of the hosts for the kickoff of the “Yes For Kids” pro-bond campaign in August. Was this firm inspired by a sense of civic duty and concern for the children of Wichita? Or by the prospect of earning architectural fees?

Something I also noticed in this contract was the naming of an “owner’s representative.” I spoke to a person heavily involved in commercial construction, and he said it’s not unusual for there to be an owner’s representative. They’re often called “project manager,” and that’s the role they play. He did say it’s a little unusual for an architectural firm to serve in this role.

What’s not unusual, though, is the identity of the architectural firm serving as owner’s representative: none other than Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture. This firm is heavily involved in promoting the current bond issue. They stand to earn millions in fees if the bond issue passes. Now we know they earn not only as architects, but also as owner’s representatives.

Records Requests Sent Today

Today, I’ve made two records requests under the Kansas Open Records Act.

The first, to USD 259, the Wichita public school district, is this:

All correspondence between USD 259 and Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture and its representatives from July 1, 2007 to the present. I ask for both written and electronic correspondence such as email. This would include email between USD 259 and Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture’s email accounts at sjcf.com, and also email accounts of Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture representatives such as Joe Johnson, Kenton Cox, and Ken Arnold that may not be at an sjcf.com email address.

Then, to the City of Wichita:

All correspondence between the City of Wichita and HH Holdings, LLC and its representatives from January 1, 2007 to the present. I ask for both written and electronic correspondence such as email. This would include email between the City of Wichita and Kevass Harding at both business and personal email addresses, between the City of Wichita and Key Construction and its representatives at both business and personal email addresses, and between the City of Wichita and Landmark Commercial Real Estate at both business and personal email addresses.

Mark McCormick’s Wichita School Bond Bias

Writing from Scottsdale, Arizona

Today’s Mark McCormick column in the Wichita Eagle (Opponents of school bond skip specifics) provides an example of this columnist’s bias, and how this bias leads to his rapidly losing credibility among Wichitans.

Bias is okay for a columnist. Everyone is entitled to a point of view. After reading a few of McCormick’s columns you get used to his way of looking at the world. Then you can either read his column, filtering it as you do. Or, like many people tell me, they’ve simply stopped reading his column. Sometimes they stop the entire newspaper.

Here’s one of the problems with this column: In allowing Wichita school board president Lynn Rogers a “big-league rebuttal,” McCormick wrote “The board members, who aren’t paid for this work, are responsible for answering the most pressing challenges.”

This makes it sound like the bond issue has been planned and managed only by volunteers.

This ignores, however, the huge staff at USD 259, many highly paid to advance the interests of the public school bureaucracy and monopoly, many now working on educational campaigns for the bond issue.

This ignores the tremendous effort by Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture in promoting the bond issue. They are working for free, but this firm stands to earn millions in fees if the bond issue passes. As shown in the posts Wichita School Bond Issue Economic Fallacy and Wichita School Safe Rooms: At No Cost? this firm’s head, Joe Johnson, often says things that make me wonder in amazement.

This ignores the efforts of many construction companies and contractors that have, at least according to their sponsorship of an event, lined up behind the bond issue, hoping to profit from the building of public works — whether they’re needed or not.

The bond issue opponents are the true volunteers, if that makes any difference. As outsiders, we don’t have access to the type of information that Lynn Rogers and USD 259 insiders have. And, as I’ve illustrated, getting information from this district is problematic.

Wichita School Safe Rooms: At No Cost?

Writing from Scottsdale, Arizona

At the September 8, 2008 meeting of the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, safe rooms were on the agenda.

A few things I learned: It appears that it was by serendipity that the district discovered that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would help pay for the hardening of safe rooms. If not for that discovery, would these safe rooms be under consideration?

Joe Johnson, head of the school district’s architectural firm Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture gave a presentation highlighting the benefit of FEMA paying $18 million towards hardening the safe rooms. The district receives the hardening for free, because the federal government pays, according to Mr. Johnson.

I wonder if Mr. Johnson has ever considered where FEMA gets its funds.

Then, by using Google, I found that many school districts are counting on FEMA to pay for a portion of their safe rooms, just like Wichita.

As it is so often, the government takes from one party and gives to another, and the receiving party is grateful — until they have to pay for someone else’s safe rooms.

I fully support safe rooms or some other type of storm shelter for Wichita schoolchildren. That’s because with compulsory attendance laws, children must attend Wichita public schools unless they are able to make other arrangements. The district, then, must be responsible for their safety.

Carol Rupe, Kansas School Board Member, Speaks for the Wichita School Bond Issue

In a letter to the Wichita Eagle, Kansas school board member Carol Rupe makes the case for supporting the Wichita school bond issue.
It’s not remarkable that a member of the public school bureaucracy would support increased spending on schools. Her letter is remarkable, however, in what it says, and what it doesn’t say.

For example, Ms. Rupe says “I think I know who will be giving money to the group supporting the bond issue.” She then lists a few parties, but leaves out a few who have a huge interest in passing the bond issue: architects like Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture and Gossen Livingston Associates, Inc. are two firms that come to mind.

She writes that it is easier to recruit businesses to a city with good schools. That is probably true. It’s quite a leap, though, to make the case that this bond issue will improve student achievement, which I think is what parents really want. There are many low- or no-cost steps the school district could make that would increase alternatives for schools, but the district does not consider these.

Ms. Rupe writes “Some [contributors] will be businesses that realize a bond issue will help boost the local economy.” This fiction that a bond issue boosts the economy is often repeated by the school district and bond issue boosters. But as explained in several posts (Wichita School Bond Issue: Is Economic Impact Real?, Wichita School Bond Issue Impact Is an Illusion, and Wichita School Bond Issue Economic Fallacy), the bond issue simply transfers economic activity from the private to the public sector. No wealth is created; in fact, wealth is lost.

“Some will be families in near-northeast Wichita who don’t have enough neighborhood schools to stop forced busing.” Well, the district stopped forced busing this school year. How did that happen if there aren’t enough schools? And if new schools are in fact needed, they can be built without the very expensive bond issue being proposed.

“Some will be retired folks who don’t wish to pay any more in taxes but who know they will pay more anyway if businesses leave.” What is the evidence or reasoning for this? I know of no firms threatening to leave Wichita because of the schools. In fact, Wichita routinely offers tax incentives to new and existing businesses that allow them to escape paying a lot of tax.

Thankfully, Ms. Rupe decided not to run for re-election this year. Having been a member of the state board of education since 2001, Ms. Rupe must have sat through countless meetings bickering over minor issues such as science standards, and oversaw a huge increase in spending on schools. At the same she didn’t speak out in favor of reforms that other states have adopted.

Increasing the Wichita School Bond Issue: Why Was Courage Required?

Talking to news media during a break in the meeting of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, on Monday August 11, 2008, Connie Dietz referred to her surprise motion to increase the amount being asked for by $20 million, remarking “I knew what I wanted to do, and I guess I was trying to find the courage to do it.”

Personally, I want to take Ms. Dietz at her word when she says that her motion was unplanned. But I’ve talked to quite a few people in the community, and no one I’ve talked to believes that the board’s action at Monday’s meeting was not scripted in advance. I can understand how people might feel this way. The interplay between the actions of a citizens group and the board this summer rightly heaps suspicion on both groups, not to mention on Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture, who many suspect is really directing the action in this drama. This architectural firm has a huge financial incentive for passing the largest bond issue possible.

But here’s my question: I wonder why it took courage to make this motion. After all, it’s for the “kids, kids, kids,” as board president Lynn Rogers said. And according to news reports, the district started with a list of $550 million in needed items, and then cut that down to the $350 million originally proposed for this bond issue. So this motion gets things closer to what the district believes it really needs.

So why the need for courage? Why stop at $370 million?

Could it be that Ms. Dietz realizes that the way the Wichita public schools raise money is through the force of government coercion?

Could it be that Ms. Dietz realizes the Wichita school district already has a tremendously large budget by any measure, and that asking for more would appear greedy?

Coould it be that Ms. Dietz has become aware of the Wichita school district’s monopoly on the use of public money for education, and how harmful this is to Wichita schoolchildren?

How to Pass the Wichita School Bond Issue

For tonight’s meeting of the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, a resolution has been prepared that calls for a vote on a proposed bond issue to be held on November 4, 2008. I don’t know if the board will vote to approve this measure or if they will even take a vote tonight, but I suspect the resolution will pass.

Randy Scholfield’s editorial Put school bond issue to public vote is correct in its assessment of the feckless campaign in favor of the bond issue. But it’s not all the fault of the school board or the district. That’s because the school district is constrained by laws that prohibit campaigning directly for the bond issue. It can undertake educational and informational campaigns only. (Not that this has stopped board members from making their opinions known. Connie Dietz: “I will do just about anything to ensure this bond issue is passed.” Barb Fuller: “I think our goal is to get this bond issue passed.”)

This law leads to the present situation where the development of the bond issue plan and its associated campaign is placed in the hands of either a citizen group with believability problems or Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture, an architectural firm with a huge financial incentive for passing the largest bond issue possible. See Wichita School Bond Issue: What We Don’t Know.

Citizens can have confidence and trust in government when it acts in an open and transparent manner. As shown in my post Wichita Public Schools: Open Records Requests Are a Burden, transparency is not a strength of the Wichita school district. This confusion over who is in charge of formulating the bond issue plan and running the campaign further harms the district’s reputation.

There is a solution, however, that would give the pro-bond group needed transparency and leadership.

There are two Wichita school board members whose terms of office end next year. These two members presently hold or recently held leadership positions. Either or both of these members — current president Lynn Rogers and immediate past president Connie Dietz — might consider resigning from the board so that they could lead the bond issue campaign.

Then, they could run for their former positions on the school board in the primary and general elections next March and April.

It would be a shame that the board would have to make do without their membership for a while. But given the difficulty in finding someone to effectively lead the bond issue campaign, something needs to happen if there is going to be a real debate about the bond issue this fall.

Wichita School Bond Issue: What We Don’t Know

In a recent article I wondered Who Runs the Wichita School Bond Issue Campaign? Reporting in today’s Wichita Eagle (Technical ed at center of bond changes) makes me even more concerned about this.

At Monday’s school board meeting, representatives of Citizens Alliance for Responsible Education (CARE) revealed their recommendations for the revision of a proposed bond issue. The upshot of their recommendation is to eliminate some spending for athletic facilities, replacing it with spending on technical education programs, including an aviation technology-themed magnet high school, perhaps housed in an existing facility.

This might be a good idea. It might even help the bond issue be better accepted by some voters. But what’s troubling is the interplay of the four parties involved in this apparently pre-staged drama.

According to Eagle reporting, CARE co-leader Randy Thon indicated it was business leaders who requested “technical education upgrades.” But a few paragraphs later in the same story we read “Thon said he didn’t have names of business leaders who requested technical education be a higher priority, but CARE is compiling a list of leaders to have formal conversations with as the bond issue proposal moves forward.”

So we’re asked to believe it was business leaders who requested a change in the bond plan, but the person who, presumably, solicited or received these recommendations doesn’t know the names of those who made them. I find this unbelievable.

I think the only conclusion we can draw is that CARE is merely an agent for someone else, whether it be the board of USD 259, the administration of USD 259, or Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture, the district’s architect.

Kansas law places restrictions on the board and administration of USD 259 regarding their involvement in bond issue elections. It appears that this restriction may be unwise. The development of the bond issue plan and its associated campaign is placed in the hands of either a citizen group with severe believability problems or an architectural firm with a huge financial incentive for passing the largest bond issue possible. We really don’t know.

As documented in articles appearing on this website, the Wichita public school district has problems with openness and transparency. This confusion about the bond issue and its management is another example of this problem.

Who Runs the Wichita School Bond Issue Campaign?

As reported in the Wichita Eagle in May, the co-leaders of Citizens Alliance for Responsible Education (CARE) knew very little of the details of a telephone survey their group conducted to discover Wichitans’ attitudes towards a school bond issue. That they knew so little gives the citizens of Wichita cause to question who is in charge of running the bond issue campaign.

Records requests made by this writer reveal that there is no contract in place between USD 259 (the Wichita public school district) and Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture covering the proposed bond issue in 2008. This raises a few questions:

First, has USD 259 effectively outsourced the promotion of a bond issue to an outside firm without a contract governing the relationship? It’s possible that Kansas law prevents them from writing such a contract. But if the bond issue is so important, it seems that the school district would want a formal relationship with the firm outsourcing its political work.

Second, if Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture is not being paid to promote the bond issue, why are they working so hard at it? Is it a sense of civic duty, or the prospect of large contracts following a successful bond issue campaign?

The relationship between the board of USD 259 and CARE is curious. Board members are full of effusive praise for the work that CARE has done. Perhaps when I am curious as to where to find USD 259 test scores, or if I want to know how USD 259 defines a violent act for statistical purposes, I should funnel the request for information through CARE. As detailed in my post For Wichita Public Schools, Even Simple Information Requests Seem a Problem, it can be difficult for an average citizen like me to obtain information from USD 259.

It’s hard to understand why the board of USD 259 has so much praise for and confidence in the work in CARE. In her article CARE Dropped Ball on Educating About Wichita School Bond Issue, Helen Cochran reveals the poor job CARE has done in its educational mission. This is the second time around for CARE, as Helen reminds us. Does CARE dare ask for a third chance?

The school district is fond of reminding us that “At the request of the Wichita Board of Education, more than 1,500 citizens assembled in fall 2007 to evaluate remaining critical needs, share their vision for Wichita’s public schools, and develop a strategic Facilities Master Plan which will support the continued growth and vitality of Wichita’s schools.” Aren’t any of these people available to help, or even attend educational meetings on a summer evening? (This passage is from a booklet on the USD 259 website that still promotes a May 6, 2008 election.)

Reporting in the Wichita Eagle indicates that the board is not likely to make a decision tonight about when to hold a bond issue election. Given this board’s record of calling for elections and changing the calendar when things aren’t going their way, we shouldn’t place much stock in whatever this board decides.

CARE Dropped Ball on Educating About Wichita School Bond Issue

My friend Helen Cochran of Citizens for Better Education contributes this article, which appeared in the Wichita Eagle.

In this article, Helen analyzes the work of Citizens Alliance for Responsible Education, a group that supports the Wichita school bond issue. As Helen notes, attendance at the four educational meetings CARE held was low. In one meeting, the only two people in attendance who weren’t either school district personnel, Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture employees (the school district’s architect), or associated with CARE were associated with Wichitans For Effective Education, a group opposing the bond issue. So at this meeting, there were effectively no members of the general public attending.

It is truly a puzzle as to why the attendance at these meetings was so low. Especially when Randy Thon, co-leader of CARE, mentioned that some 1,500 people participated in the formulation of the bond issue plan. On a personal level, I spoke to Mr. Thon after the first meeting and expressed some sympathy that so few people attended the meeting. I don’t think he thought I was serious, or that it even mattered at all.

On April 7, the Wichita school board postponed a scheduled May 6 special election for a proposed $350 million school bond at the behest of a volunteer bond-support group. Citizens Alliance for Responsible Education argued that more time was needed to “educate the public” regarding the bond specifics and therefore a postponement was warranted. The board concurred, despite earlier arguing that postponing the vote would add tens of thousands of dollars to construction costs.

It was concluded that CARE would educate the community and return to the board with a bond recommendation. Prior to hosting four community meetings this summer, CARE commissioned a telephone survey in early June to gauge public sentiment and asked such questions as the age and political party affiliation of the responder as well as questions with regard to the size of the bond and other proposal specifics. The results of the survey have not been made public.

Fewer than 50 citizens attended the four educational community meetings. Perhaps people did not attend because they already had made up their minds as to how they would vote. Perhaps people were busy with summertime activities. Or perhaps people felt that because opponents were denied a voice when the bond postponement was suggested to the board, any opposing viewpoint would not be welcomed at these community forums. As the summer meetings failed to attract the public, neither the school board nor the volunteer group had a backup plan to educate the public. No bulk mailing was undertaken, nor were informational telephone banks set up to reach the public. The “more time is needed” argument translated into a waste of time, as no further steps were taken.

The educational ball was dropped. CARE squandered all opportunity for credibility when it dropped that ball, leaving USD 259 board members to wallow in their indecisiveness. This is troubling because the school board has postured itself to heavily rely upon a recommendation from CARE, scheduled to be made at Monday’s school board meeting, while ignoring other community groups’ recommendations. What are CARE’s credentials to recommend this board spend millions of property owners’ dollars without having fulfilled a promise to better educate this community regarding such an expenditure? CARE may suggest a scaled-back version of the original bond, recommend the proposal be withdrawn (as suggested by some bond opponents) or encourage the board to throttle full-speed ahead for the originally proposed $350 million.

Regardless of what is presented to the board Monday night, the public should be justifiably skeptical of any recommendations made or agreed upon when attempts to educate the public were poorly conceived and executed and failed miserably.

If CARE plans to use its survey results as grounds for its recommendation, the school board should insist upon full public disclosure of those results.

Asking a community to endorse a $350 million bond issue, an issue less than $350 million or a bond issue in any amount should warrant a more conscientious and disciplined effort than what has been offered to date.

Wichita School District: Tax Rates Not Increasing, But Taxes Paid Are

According to the Wichita Eagle article School board plans no tax increase for coming year, USD 259, the Wichita public school district, does not “plan to raise property taxes” to pay for school operations next year.

Now if you read that and that alone, you might want to congratulate Wichita school officials for respecting the taxpayer.

But not so fast.

For one thing, the taxes that are under the control of USD 259 are increasing. The rate is not, but the amount collected is. That’s because property taxes increase each year as property is reappraised to a higher value, and as new property comes into existence. This increase can be high, too. From 2005 to 2006, the two most recent years I could find data at usd259.com, the total assessed value of property taxable by USD 259 increased from $2,314,710,733 to $2,428,891,164. That’s an increase of 4.9%, and even without an increase in the mill levy (the rate at which property is taxed), much more tax will be collected.

Then, it’s not like the school district’s appetite for tax increases is sated. Last August the board increase the mill levy by two mills. That brought the district to its statutory limit. It can’t increase the mill levy further without asking for voter approval. If not for that, we can be fairly sure that the board would pass another tax rate increase.

Finally, remember that this Wichita school board and its surrogates Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture and Citizens Alliance for Responsible Education are campaigning for the voters to approve a large tax increase in the form of the bond issue, which may or may not appear on a ballot soon.

Wichita Business Journal: Please Explain the Wichita School Bond Impact

In an article in the June 27, 2008 Wichita Business Journal (Passage of 2000 school bond issue highlights Brooks’ legacy in Wichita), reporter Josh Funk makes another error. (The first error is explained in Wichita Business Journal: Where is the Increasing Enrollment in Wichita Schools?)

In this case, Mr. Heck claims, in his tribute to departing USD 259 (Wichita public school district) superintendent Winston Brooks, that “He leaves Wichita before resolution of a $350 million bond issue, but his legacy as superintendent will be the passage of another bond issue — this one for $284.5 million — eight years ago that bailed out a city from a depressed post-9/11 economy while making necessary improvements to the school district.”

Mr. Heck must be relying on reporting from his own newspaper, for a few months ago it printed the article “Brooks: Bond issue possible in spring” (December 28, 2007 Wichita Business Journal) in which Brooks and Joe Johnson, head of the school district’s architectural firm Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture say that the bond issue in 2000 did, indeed, save Wichita.

This is nonsense of the highest order. Government spending cannot create prosperity. Borrowing against future tax revenue only compounds the problem. See Wichita School Bond Issue Economic Fallacy.

The Wichita Eagle let its guest columnist make the same mistake when Wichita school board member Lynn Rogers tried to make the case that the 2000 bond issue was an economic benefit to Wichita. See Wichita School Bond Issue Impact Is an Illusion for discussion.

Wichita School Bond Issue: Who Is Running the Survey?

A recent newspaper article reports on a telephone survey regarding a proposed bond issue for USD 259, the Wichita, Kansas public school district. (“Pro-bond group conducts survey,” May 22, 2008 Wichita Eagle.) The article starts as follows:

The citizen group that supports a proposed $350 million bond issue for Wichita schools is conducting a telephone survey to gauge public opinion of the bond.

Sarah Olson, co-coordinator of Citizens Alliance for Responsible Education (CARE), said the survey is “part of our ongoing campaign strategy” and was paid for with donations.

But both Olson and co-coordinator Randy Thon said they don’t know who is conducting the survey, how much it cost, how many people will be called, or the nature of the questions being asked.

With the two leaders of CARE knowing so little about this survey, Wichitans are justified in wondering who is really conducting this survey. Is it the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district? Or is it Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture, the school district’s architect, and who happens to share the same street address as CARE?

Mr. Thon is also quoted in this article as follows: “We’re putting all our efforts forward in doing this right the first time — getting information out to people and getting them to understand how important it is,” he said. I might remind Mr. Thon that on February 11, 2008, the Wichita school board called for a special election to be held on May 6 so that voters could express their support — or not — for the bond issue. So there has already been a “first time” for this bond issue. That “first time” was postponed at the request of Mr. Thon’s organization.

Wichita school bond issue economic fallacy

A recent article in the Wichita Business Journal (December 28, 2007) about USD 259, the Wichita public school district, bond issues contained this passage:

“The economic benefit was fantastic,” says Joe Johnson, a partner at Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey, who was on the 2006 steering committee. “No one predicted the downturn, but this community got tremendous value from the bond issue.”

There was also this passage concerning Wichita Schools Superintendent Winston Brooks:

There is a misconception, Brooks says, that the bond issue was a drain on the economy. Actually, he says, the bond issue had a positive economic impact on Wichita.

“I think we did bail out this community with the bond issue,” Brooks says. “… Often times when you hear the district talk about bond issues, it’s ‘Here they come again. It’s going to kill the economy.’ The fact of the matter is that’s not what happened last time.

“That bond issue helped the economy.”

I have no doubt that the school bond issue in 2000 was a tremendous benefit to Mr. Johnson’s firm. I’m sure Superintendent Brooks, in some way that I don’t understand, benefited from the bond issue, too.

As to the rest of the community, however, the benefit claimed by these two men doesn’t exist. It never existed. It is only a fantasy flowing from an economic fallacy. It comes from being so focused on one’s own self that nothing else matters, and is therefore not seen or considered. As explained by Henry Hazlitt in his book Economics in One Lesson:

This [fallacy] is the persistent tendency of men to see only the immediate effects of a given policy, or its effects only on a special group, and to neglect to inquire what the long-run effects of that policy will be not only on that special group but on all groups. It is the fallacy of overlooking secondary consequences.

Consider: If the bond issue in 2000 had not passed and people in Wichita kept the tax money that goes to retiring the bonds (and the future payments yet to be made), what do you suppose they would have done with that money? Wouldn’t it be possible that they would have spent and invested it, and that spending and investing would have provided economic benefit to our community too?

I am reminded of another passage from Economics in One Lesson regarding a bridge to be built:

Therefore for every public job created by the bridge project a private job has been destroyed somewhere else. We can see the men employed on the bridge. We can watch them at work. The employment argument of the government spenders becomes vivid, and probably for most people convincing.

But there are other things that we do not see, because, alas, they have never been permitted to come into existence. They are the jobs destroyed by the $1,000,000 taken from the taxpayers. All that has happened, at best, is that there has been a diversion of jobs because of the project.

It is as simple as that. Every dollar taken by taxes is a dollar that isn’t spent somewhere else, with the attendant loss of economic activity. When we hear arguments about how much a new school bond issue will benefit Wichita’s economy, remember this.