Voters in the DeKalb Central school district on Tuesday rejected a proposed $37 million school building project by a convincing margin — with 58 percent opposed.
The outcome does not mean local voters do not support DeKalb Central Schools, its students or the value of education.
Instead, voters sent a strong message that school board members and administrators asked for too much. We believe a solid majority of voters would have said “yes” to a more modest project.
Voters perceived that a majority of the project’s cost involved what they considered luxuries — especially a proposed $9.3 million field house and millions more for installing synthetic turf on several outdoor athletic fields.
Voters objected to what many saw as an all-or-nothing choice they faced on the ballot.
Several items on the $37 million menu amounted to necessary upkeep or essential upgrades, such as a larger cafeteria for the district’s largest elementary school — J.R. Watson Elementary in Auburn — and new heating equipment for DeKalb High School.
Many voters resented that if they said “no” to the extracurricular facilities, they also were forced to block what they considered to be needed projects.
Judging from the school district’s breakdown of costs, the bill would be around $8 million for projects that most voters likely would consider necessary and noncontroversial.
Those essential projects include a DeKalb Middle school remodeling for $3.2 million; new heating boilers at DeKalb High School for $1.1 million; a new J.R. Watson Elementary cafeteria and kitchen, $3 million; and renovation of J.R. Watson’s courtyard for $454,500.
Many voices have expressed a need for healing of the school district after the heated referendum campaign. School district leaders can accomplish that by showing they listened and — by whatever legal means is needed — presenting a new proposal for the necessities.
If state law requires at least 500 signatures to bring back a reduced project in one year after Tuesday’s vote, it should be easy to find 500 people who will sign their names for that. We doubt that it would be met by a formal protest.
We think a strong case can be made for including a synthetic turf football field, due to the heavy use of the grass surface. The field sees little recovery time between events, making it hard to keep the natural turf in good condition. Several area schools of equal or smaller enrollment compared to DeKalb have installed artificial turf football fields.
Turf baseball, softball and soccer fields could make it easier for the school to maintain those surfaces and possibly prevent a few rainouts, but they do not seem vital.
The proposed field house may have been the key factor in many voters choosing “no” when they cast their ballots Tuesday.
We suggest that school officials take a different approach to the field house.
Supporters of both “yes” and “no” sent an unprecedented volume of letters to the editor leading up to Tuesday’s vote.
One writer pointed out that nearly all of DeKalb County’s finest attributes were built with private contributions instead of tax dollars. He mentioned the city’s automotive museums as examples.
To the writer’s list of privately funded gems in recent years, we would add the Willennar Genealogy Center, James Cultural Plaza, DeKalb Outdoor Theater, Steininger Center for the Community Foundation of DeKalb County, Auburn’s Rieke Park and the YMCA of DeKalb County.
DeKalb County has been blessed with highly effective charitable campaign leaders and exceptionally generous donors.
We believe that if DeKalb Central recruits the community’s best fundraisers to approach its civic-minded foundations and corporations, with help from individual donors, the district could raise the money to build a field house and take great pride in the accomplishment.
One motive for building a field house — and the school project in general — was to impress potential future residents of the DeKalb Central community.
What could be more impressive than demonstrating that once again, local residents are willing to invest their money voluntarily in a community asset?
What could do a better job of bringing the school district’s residents back together?
What could set a better example for our students — showing both how much we value them and how DeKalb County gets it done with donated dollars?
OUR VIEW is written on a rotating basis by Grace Housholder, Dave Kurtz, Michael Marturello and Steve Garbacz. We welcome readers’ comments.