By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN, Neb. — A long list of construction companies, architects and engineers are behind a group promoting passage of a Feb. 11 Lincoln election on whether to borrow $153 million for school construction and upgrades.
The money would be used to beef up security and technology, renovate schools and build a new elementary school, middle school and $25 million career academy at Southeast Community College.
A political committee called Great Schools for Great Children has been buying newspaper ads, sending out fliers, putting up signs and running TV ads in support of the bond issue.
“Let’s make sure our children have the great schools they deserve,” their direct mail piece says. “New schools. Secure schools. Tomorrow’s schools. Connected schools. All this and more with no rise in property taxes.”
But many of the companies contributing to that promotion are likely also interested in getting a piece of that $153 million pie. The biggest donor is Nebco, a construction supply company that donated $10,000. The second largest donor is the teachers’ union, with $7,500, followed by Sampson Construction, which donated $7,000, according to records at the state Accountability & Disclosure Commission.
The group also got a $6,000 donation from Duncan Aviation of Lincoln. Todd Duncan, chairman of Duncan Aviation, also donated $2,000 personally. His wife, Connie Duncan, was co-chair of an LPS task force that studied the district’s needs and came up with $350 million worth of projects, which was whittled down to the current proposal. She now chairs the group promoting passage.
Connie Duncan is a former teacher and past co-chair of the teachers’ union PAC. Southeast Community College, which would partner with the district to build the academy center, lists her as an employee on its website. Duncan couldn’t be reached for comment.
Another donor is Hampton Enterprises, which donated $2,000. Hampton Construction was hired by LPS to do up to $25,000 in preliminary design work on the proposed $25 million career academy.
Among the other donations to the group are:
• $1,000 from Advanced Engineering Systems of Lincoln
• $2,500 from BCDM Architects of Bellevue
• $1,500 from Brester Construction of Lincoln
• $500 from Campbell’s Nursery in Lincoln
• $1,000 from Cather & Sons Construction in Lincoln
• $1,500 from Cheever Construction in Lincoln
• $1,000 from The Clark Enersen Partners of Lincoln, an architecture and engineering firm
• $5,000 from Davis Design of Lincoln, an architecture and engineering firm
• $1,000 from Garner Industries, a custom manufacturer
• $2,500 from Lincoln Machine, which designs and builds parts and equipment.
• $5,000 from Nelnet, which services student loans for the federal government, processes payments, plans education and manages assets.
• $5,000 from Olsson Associates, an engineering and design firm.
• $5,000 from Pinnacle Bank, which is based in Gretna
• $1,000 from Runza, a local fast food chain
• $2,000 from Sinclair Hille Architects
• $5,000 from West Gate Bank in Lincoln
Asked about the prevalence of businesses that could benefit from a “yes” vote in the group, Darin Petersen, accountant for Great Schools for Great Children, said, “I can’t speak for what’s typical for political donations. I was just asked to help file the required forms. I have kids in LPS.”
The Lone Ranger
There doesn’t appear to be any organized opposition to the bond issue, save for a Lincoln trial attorney who is on a virtual one-man crusade against it. Rick Boucher, a Democrat who ran for Lancaster County attorney in 2010, has repeatedly railed against the bond issue to his 1,600 Facebook friends.
Boucher said he first got interested in the issue when the school board decided to hold the election in February, even though there’s a hot primary election just around the corner in May that would draw more voters, not to mention a general election in November. While the school board has said it would save about a million dollars in costs by holding the election soon enough to begin construction this summer, Boucher said “it doesn’t matter to me how much money they save… one cannot put a value on voter participation.”
The “rocket docket election” on Feb. 11 is “setting land speed records,” he said.
LPS said the money would help add 2,200 new seats to deal with an 11 percent enrollment increase over the past five years.
The special vote-by-mail election doesn’t seem to be generating much interest among Lincolnites, judging from attendance at a series of informational meetings held by LPS. One non-LPS person attended one of the meetings, and a half-dozen showed up for another. Boucher said the times were not convenient for most people.
“Only if you didn’t want people to come and learn would you schedule them at 4 to 5 p.m.,” he said.
LPS says if Lincolnites approve the bond issue, it could add 2,200 new seats to deal with an 11 percent enrollment increase over the past five years. The district says the tax rate likely would remain the same, since it would be adding more debt as old debt is retired. But without the bond issue, taxes would go down about 4 cents per $100 of property value, or $63 for the owner of a $150,000 home.
Superintendent Steve Joel said at one of the meetings there are “no planned” tax increases, but could not guarantee taxes wouldn’t go up (if property values drop, for example). Boucher has pounded LPS on that, and stressed that taxes would go down if the bond fails.
The school district successfully passed a $250 million bond issue in 2006, and Boucher thinks this proposal is “too much, too soon.”
“Just because I pay something off, I don’t go out and buy a new car,” Boucher said.
Boucher has taken so much heat for speaking out about the vote that he defriended his wife on Facebook so she couldn’t see “all this crap” people have said in response to his posts. He’s been criticized, for example, for speaking out against the public schools bond issue when his daughter goes to a private, Catholic school (his sons started out in public school before transferring to Catholic schools).
“I pay taxes and I pay tuition,” he said.
But when he visits public high schools, he’s “awestruck” by all the amenities and “hallways you could drive a semi down.”
“These are pretty fancy places,” he said. “I look at those and I think, ‘My gosh do we need all of those?’ I’m not saying every high school needs to look like the spartan Methodist, Lutheran or Catholic schools.”
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