Editor's Note: This is the last of three stories looking at the bond issues before Jay Public School voters. It talks with voters on both sides of the issue to get the pros and cons of the project.
Stories about specifics of Proposition 1 and 2, appeared in the April 24 and May 1 issues of The Delaware County Journal and may be found online at www.grandlakenews.com.
Ask Johnnie Earp to describe how he views the May 14 Jay School Bond election and he describes it as a tipping point for the community.
"The school is the heart beat of any community," Earp said. "People move in because you have a nice school, then retail follows.
"If we don't have a nice facility, people don't move here. Yes [the bond] is an increase. But it's an investment into our future."
Earp, a Jay graduate himself, serves as the Northeast Oklahoma Regional Alliance chairman.
In that role, Earp works with leaders from the 14 counties of northeast Oklahoma to promote economic development and legislative action which benefits the cities, tribes and industry within the region.
Earp said one of the key issues NORA leaders focus on, revolves around education of the labor force within the region.
"Other communities and schools are looking to see how the Jay community votes," Earp said. "Is our community willing to invest in the community, and students.
"We want to have the best eduction offered within the region."
Earp said leaders from the top 15 industries within the region came together, to talk with NORA officials about their needs.
Earp said education of the labor pool, in technology issues, as well as soft skills, was listed as the overriding concerns.
Earlier this school year, officials with the Mid America Industrial Park provided Jay Middle School with a $250,000 STEM Lab, as a community partnership effort.
Earp said future community partnerships, such as the lab, may not be possible unless school officials find a way to keep the school population stable and growing.
Earp knows there's concerns in the community about the price tag placed on the bond issues - $15.855 million on the capital improvement and $700K on the transportation improvements.
As president of Grand Savings Bank, he knows it's a lot of money. But, he said, until the bond passes, the final bids are made, and district officials begin to "tear" into the walls, the true price tag on the improvements is unknown.
"Yes it's a big fix, however the school needs a big fix," Earp said. "We've put the cost off [on renovations] until we have come to a point where we need to invest in our future."
In the past, Earp said, business leaders have picked towns across the Arkansas/Oklahoma state line such as Gravette and Siloam Springs, specifically because of the respective school systems and the benefits to students.
"We've got to bring our structure, facility and technology up to the same level in order to compete," Earp said.
As property values increase in northwest Arkansas, Earp believes businesses and those making investments will begin to turn to Oklahoma, and specifically Delaware County, for future growth.
"Do we have a nice school, is the first thing they will look at," Earp said. "They can't sell a new house, unless there's a nice school."
Once housing comes, Earp said, retail will follow.
"Right now people are going to Grove, Siloam Springs and Pryor," Earp said. "Jay is being passed over."
Earp hopes voters look at the bond as an investment - within the community and school.
"We are investing in our children's future," Earp said. "This is going to extend into the future generations, in order to provide the best investment in our schools."
Earp sees the growth possible because Jay has been named an "opportunity zone," through action by the federal and Cherokee governments.
Earp said the program, initiated through the recent federal tax bill, will help attract businesses to come to Jay by offering income tax incentives.
As the Jay mayor, and as a parent of two Jay students, Becki Farley sees passage of the bond issue as a must.
"The school is the center of our community, and it needs to be at its very best," Farley said.
Like many, Farley has listened to people's complaints about the bond - specifically about the size of Proposition 1.
"Is it a perfect bond, no," Farley said. "There is no perfect bond. There are things that might have been added to the bond, but there's not one thing [in it] not needed in the community.
"We're not always going to like every piece of the puzzle, but in the long run, and for the economy, its the best thing for our school."
Farley sees the bond's passage having a two-fold benefit to the community. First it will help the school, and second it will bring money into the community through sales tax dollars.
"I'm a land owner," Farley said. "I know if the schools improve, it will make my land more valuable. It's hard for me as a parent to vote no on this bond."
Yes, Farley said, the bond will increase the property taxes. But she said, the cost will be greater if improvements are not made to the school.
"For me it's worth it for my kids to have the things then need," Farley said. "We want our school to be strong.
"I think of it like being part of a family. When you are part of a family, you sacrifice for your kids or elderly parents. There's lots of times I've not gotten something I've wanted, because I've needed to get something for my kids."
Farley said she believes it's the community's responsibility to provide for the next generation of Jay students.
"As the mayor, I have to be for what makes our community more attractive to businesses," Farley said. "This is the first step to getting more jobs here."
Voting no, with reasons
Ron Koelling is adamant about one thing. His decision not to support the May 14 school bond should not be taken as a vote against the school district.
Instead, Koelling said, he is against the amount of projects placed in both propositions, and the ultimate $16-plus million price tag.
"This is a low income community who cannot afford [this]," Koelling said.
Koelling, who moved to the community in 2011-12, has a granddaughter who is a teacher, as well as nine great-grandchildren who are students, within the Jay School System.
Last month, Koelling said he took the tour, giving himself a chance to examine the district's concerns up close.
"I saw a whole lot of things [wrong] that did not get routine maintenance," Koelling said, adding if things had been addressed in a timely manner, the issues wouldn't have grown to the current level of need.
He believes while some of the projects are critical in nature - such as the roof repairs, others, like moving the stadium to the high school campus are not as time sensitive.
"I understand [the wants], but is the project critical and time sensitive," Koelling said. "The time sensitive issues are repairing the roofs and bringing the classrooms up to snuff first.
"Athletics, should come second and have a lower priority."
Koelling said he believes Jay Superintendent Larry Shackelford and other district officials should have broken the bond into priority projects.
"I don't think he's giving respect to the community and to the residents of the district," Koelling said. "I feel like he's a new superintendent, wanting to come in and leave his mark."
Koelling also questions how the entire project evolved, through the series of meetings Shackelford and district officials hosted with community steak-holders.
With a background in corporate finance and business, Koelling said he fears the bond will simply "frisk the community for as much as it can give," rather than truly represent what the projects will cost.
"I want to see things improve," Koelling said. "But you've got to balance expenses and revenue. You can't spend so much that you bankrupt the community in order to get what you want for the school.
"I'm not against the bond issue. I'm against the size of it, and doing it all at once."
Koelling also wonders if district officials will have the funds to maintain the repairs, or if things will be put off again.
"We need to pay some serious attention to the maintenance activities," Koelling said.
In terms of the transportation bond, Koelling sees the addition of activity buses as "fluff" rather than a needed expense.
"$16 million is just too much," Koelling said. "It's too much all at once.
"Yes, it would be great when we get it all done, and we would have a wonderful looking campus. But can the community afford it?"
Koelling said he wishes district officials had looked at what the community could do as a whole, rather than just moving full steam ahead with one large bond.
"We need to balance out our expenses with reasonable revenue expectations without putting the community into bankruptcy," Koelling said.