Piper School District leaders were already warning of overcrowding in 2015, when the district asked voters to approve school property tax increases that would help pay for a new high school in one of the fastest-growing school districts in the state.
In 2015, enrollment had jumped by more than 500 students in the eight years since voters had approved a Piper High School addition and the construction of an elementary school. And growth was projected to continue to increase by roughly 100 students each year.
But, in a low-turnout election that took some school leaders by surprise, voters defeated the bond issue by 350 votes. Without the ability to fund new construction, the district was forced to find temporary solutions for its growing need for space, such as planting a modular “mobile” unit with eight classrooms and 240 extra seats outside its middle school.
It also quickly began efforts to understand what had gone wrong in its campaign, and prepared for the inevitable day when school leaders would once again ask voters to sign off on tax rate increases that would allow the district to build.
That day comes on Feb. 22, when voters in the Piper School District will consider a $35 million bond issue to fund the construction of a new school center for third, fourth and fifth graders on land already owned by the district at 131st Street and Leavenworth Road.
If the bond issue is successful, school tax rates in Piper would increase by 6.29 mills. One mill is equal to $1 of tax per $1,000 of taxable value. That means a taxpayer with a home valued at $250,000 would see an increase of $180 a year — or $15 a month.
The proposed building would accommodate 800 students and open in fall 2020. According to district plans, West Elementary would then become a K-2 school, East Elementary would house sixth graders and Piper Middle School would be designated for seventh and eighth graders.
The proposal also solves a short-term problem of needing more space in elementary schools with rapidly-increasing class sizes, officials said. And it provides the district more time — and a potential solution —in addressing an impending space issue at the high school level.
The district is on track to pay off debt from an older bond project by 2026, two years earlier than they are required to. By then, officials say they could ask voters to approve the expansion of the 3-5 center into a high school without increasing taxes.
Piper School District Superintendent Tim Conrad said the public’s rejection of the $67.5 million bond issue in 2015 was a learning lesson for the district.
Currently, 2,380 students are enrolled in the district in western Wyandotte County. That’s an increase of 53 percent, or 830 students, since the 2007-08 school year, when 1,550 children were enrolled.
“We thought the message was clear in 2015: ‘We are at capacity and we’re continuing to grow,’” Conrad said. “We were maybe more optimistic than we should have been.”
Conrad said district leaders engaged voters to understand why the 2015 campaign failed. Through surveys and community events, they learned that an anemic parent vote — only 35 percent of parents participated in the election — had played a role in the unsuccessful election.
They heard from those who had been misinformed about what proposed projects would entail and harbored doubts about how serious overcrowding had become in Piper.
And they heard clearly that the tax rate increases proposed in 2015, which were more than double the 2018 rate, were too steep for community members who already feel overburdened by taxes.
“There’s a weariness from a taxation standpoint,” said Piper parent and former board member Darrell Yoder.
School officials said they tried to address that weariness head-on. This go-round, Conrad and other school officials doubled the amount of community sessions, spoke to home owner’s associations and other community groups and launched educational campaigns on social media. A grassroots group of parents and community members called “Vote Yes for Piper Kids” also worked to disseminate accurate information about the upcoming bond issue.
Most importantly, school leaders told The Star, the current proposal was designed to reflect what voters told school leaders they could afford.
“One of the things that we did is we did a survey,” said Piper’s current School Board President Jeb Vader. “That information ticked back to us, what the community wanted, what they were willing to spend. We said one by one let’s attack those concerns and make sure the appropriate information is out there.”
Getting voters on board has also meant making sure the Piper community understands the severity of the district’s overcrowding issues — that the district’s elementary and middle schools already operating over capacity.
Conrad said the district is at a “stalemate” of what it can offer students with existing classroom space.
He said the district doesn’t have the space to expand STEM programs, nor does it have the ability currently to improve or build college and career centers for high school students that would match those available in other districts.
Student to teacher ratios have reached levels of 28 to 1 in some classrooms, Conrad said, and that ratio will rise if they cannot find additional space. School officials say they worry about the district’s ability to retain teachers or that property values could drop if Piper can’t maintain the quality of its schools.
Temporary solutions have also posed safety issues, said Yoder, who joined “Vote Yes for Piper Kids” after stepping down from the board this January. More than 350 students move between their primary school and a second building or mobile classroom every day, he said.
“When you’ve got students migrating between buildings you have to look at yourself and say, ‘Come on Piper, is this the best we can do?’” Yoder said.
Adding to concerns is a new law in Kansas that gives the state the power to limit or cap the amount of bonds issued by school districts, and create waiting lists for those who want to use property tax revenue to fund construction.
If the district is not successful this week, many worry it will be years before they get another chance.
Meanwhile, the Kansas Association of School Board predicts that Piper and three other Kansas districts will have the highest percentage of growth in the next five years.
District officials have speculated that if the bond election is unsuccessful, the district would once again have to bring in a modular unit, though it is unclear where an additional unit could go or how it would be paid for. Schools would have to consider hosting classes on stages or in common areas, Vader said, away from the technology and tools found in classrooms.
Already, the Board of Education has allowed its meeting area to be used as classroom space, Vader said.
The modular unit put in place two years ago? It’s at capacity.
Those eligible to vote in the Piper special election can vote early from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Feb 20 and 8 a.m. to noon on Feb. 21 at the election office, located at 850 State Avenue, Kansas City, Kansas.
Those who wish to vote on Feb. 22, the election day, can vote from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at their polling place.