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Alpine School District Bond

October 25, 2011

The Alpine School District is asking voters to approve a $210 million bond next month. I’ve attended a couple of informational meetings about the bond, and these are my thoughts.

My first reaction is that $210 million is a lot of money. However, it works out to about $35 a year for the average home in the district, which certainly seems more palatable to the family budget. But the question remains, is it necessary?

The district has gone to great pains to show in detail what the money is for and why it’s needed right now. Over the last five years the district has grown by 11,000 students and is expected to grow another 10,000 in the next five years. About $90 million of the bond will be for a new high school in Lehi and middle school in Eagle Mountain. The existing Lehi high school is older, has no room to expand, and is already at or over capacity, so building another one is reasonable. The Eagle Mountain middle school will ease the burden on the brand new and already full Vista Heights middle school. It will also lower the student population of Westlake high school by creating space to move the ninth grade out of high school and into those two middle schools. Spending on these schools’ construction all seem necessary and reasonable from a student population standpoint.

District officials have told me that they expect the high school & middle school to cost $168 per square foot.  I tried to find school construction data to compare this to and found a state audit report from 2008 which outlined how construction costs had risen sharply in the preceding years, with 2007 topping out at about $150 per square foot.  The report also shows how Utah generally has lower school construction costs than the nation as a whole, as well as our surrounding states.  So by that measure Alpine’s construction costs for these new schools don’t seem to be overly extravagant.  I have no idea if that number in turn produces good education or bad, just that it’s less than what our neighbors spend.

Also scheduled in the bond are a few new elementary schools as well as additions and seismic upgrades to older schools in the district, some of which are 50 years old.  I have no data or understanding of the necessity of these upgrades and additions, and so must simply trust that the administration and school board are proceeding prudently.

The $210 million represents a loan that you and I are being given which we will pay back over time through our property tax.  We currently have just under $400 million of debt, which amounts to about $50 million a year in principle and interest payments.  The district told me that based on population growth projections we will likely see another bond proposal for a similar amount in another 5 years, just as we’ve had every 5 years since at least 2001.  After that however, pending any unforeseen spikes in population or other financial difficulty, the district will be able to pay for building costs without further bonding.  We’ll have to wait another 10 years to find out for sure, but if it happens I will be very pleasantly surprised.

So it is with an understanding of our population growth needs, and no small amount of trust extended to our elected school board, that I support the bond measure.

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