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Vote yes to school referendum

Voters in the Medford school district should vote yes on a $39.9 million referendum for educational, security and infrastructure upgrades at Medford Area Senior High School.

If that line seems familiar, it should, it was the message The Star News wrote in an editorial last fall prior to the general election where the referendum was narrowly defeated. Six months later, it is still necessary for voters to look to the long term future of the district and address issues with the high school when it comes to technology infrastructure, educational spaces for science, technology and the arts, overall accessibility and how spaces are utilized to meet current and emerging educational needs.

As with manufacturing, farming, construction, auto repair over the past five decades, the way young people are educated has changed. The once common scene of 30 students sitting in rows as a teacher lectures at the front of the class is growing increasingly scarce. In its place are classes focused on addressing the skill level of the students, ensuring that everyone maximizes their potential from the student taking advanced college-level science classes, hands-on shop classes to those needing additional help to lead productive lives.

At the same time, students do not live in a vacuum. What happens in their home life comes with them to the schools. Students meet with law enforcement, social workers, attorneys and counselors on a regular basis. Confidentiality laws require many of these meetings to be done in private. The current school layout does not have the space for this to happen without disrupting education for numerous others.

Beyond this, there are accessibility and security issues with students going to and from the tech ed. building and with students and staff with mobility impairments having access throughout the building. These are the types of long standing concerns that are addressed under the referendum plans.

Just as with a child’s slide puzzle, you have to move pieces to solve the puzzle. Under the project’s plans, the library would be converted into additional learning spaces with the current Red/White Theater being converted into library space. The arts are an important component of well-rounded education and the plans call for a new theater to be built to replace the Red/White Theater and, in the process, improve it to make it more usable for school and community events for decades to come.

Another hot-button for many is the additional gym space being added to supplement the existing Raider Hall. Ironically the planned gym space has drawn criticism both from those who complain it will be too small and those who feel it is unneeded. Gym space for educational, co-curricular and community use is in short supply and has been an issue in the district for years. This new space will provide a long-term solution.

Some opponents of the referendum have focused on the timing asking “why now.” Simply put, it is time. After about 50 years a building, especially one that is used by hundreds of people every day, gets to the point of being worn out and there needs to be a reinvestment in order to keep it viable.

Another very real factor in the timing is the cost of borrowing funds. Interest rates are historically low creating an ideal window of opportunity to undertake large projects. The financial advisors have presented a financing plan built around a 3.5% interest rate. There isn’t anyone in the banking community who expects a final interest rate anywhere near that high. Recent borrowing by the county and the city saw rates at a fraction of that estimate. Low rates will shave millions of dollars off the final cost.

Some have argued against the referendum spuriously claiming an unsettled local economy. While individual finances vary, as a whole Taylor County residents have come out of the past year economically strong. At times in the past year the county was near or at the top for having the lowest unemployment rates in the state with rates far below what economists consider to be full employment. With employers scrambling for workers and real wages increasing as a result of the immutable laws of supply and demand, the local economy shows no signs of cooling off anytime soon.

Another key local economic indicator, county sales tax collections, reached an all-time high in 2020 with a 14.4% increase over the previous year. This reflects strong retail sales in the county. Those selling durable goods such as vehicles, furniture and appliances have noted particularly robust sales with demand exceeding local supply in some cases. Home sales, likewise, continue to be strong demonstrating that consumers have confidence in the longterm health of the local economy.

The referendum, as it was presented six months ago, and now, is far from perfect. The plans represent compromises and choices to maximize the end result and minimize expense. Just as there are those who would like to cut to reduce project costs, others complain that the proposed additions would not go far enough. What this plan does well is addressing the core long-term issues at the high school and ensures its continued viability for decades to come. Voters should vote yes on April 6.