It is simultaneously the best time and the worst time for one local school district to have its hand out.
For those who didn't know, Davenport and Bettendorf school districts have special elections on Dec. 11. Even if they held these things on a Saturday in May, voters are reluctant to take the time for school elections. This year may be different, especially in Davenport.
The district is asking voters to renew a special tax. The Physical Plant and Equipment Levy, PPEL, has to be used for buying, remodeling, repairing or constructing buildings, grounds and certain equipment. It's like an infrastructure fund, and it cannot be used for salaries.
The current PPEL expires in June, and Davenport is asking voters to OK the 10-year renewal and increase the ante. While the current levy gets 97 cents for every $1,000 in assessed property valuation, the district now is asking for the maximum-allowed levy of $1.34.
The problem for the Davenport district is the damage recently done to its reputation for managing money.
The state is breathing down the district's neck to balance its out-of-whack budget, the superintendent made a rush for the door, and dozens of teaching positions are going away. Most of the 83 certified staff positions that are being cut are going the way of early retirement and attrition. Regardless of how they go, they're gone.
Some say former Superintendent Art Tate fell upon his sword when he made the surprise, last-minute announcement he was resigning eight months earlier than his planned retirement. He did, after all, acknowledge he could have handled things differently; better.
Some portray Tate a hero for bravely standing up to lawmakers for their unwillingness to fund districts equally across the state. Others say Tate should have spent less time bucking Des Moines for its funding failures and more time addressing his own.
Blame the statehouse all you want for a faulty funding formula, but you still have to live within your means. Davenport didn't.
Since 2008, the district's population has plummeted by 900 students. Since the state supplies funding on a per-pupil basis ($6,500 per kid), Davenport has lost out on millions. At least, that's one way of looking at it. Another is that Davenport now has far fewer students to accommodate.
Given the financial crisis currently facing Davenport, it may seem unwise to vote to give them more money. The problem is, without PPEL, most future building repair costs will have to come from the already-depleted general fund. And that could deliver another financial blow the district cannot absorb.
While Davenport wisely spent PPEL money on much-needed roofing projects throughout the district, along with some HVAC needs, it also spent $28.3 million on a new swimming pool and auditorium at Central High School. Few would argue the upgrades weren't needed, and the finished works are showpieces. But the spending was hardly frugal.
Complicating matters is the fact the Davenport School Board approved a severance agreement with Tate well over a month ago. Even so, district officials tell us they cannot say how much Tate will take with him because the accounting hasn't been done — even though the board already approved it. This cart-before-the-horse way of spending hardly inspires whatever trace of confidence in the district now remains.
Then there's Bettendorf, where the district wants voters to approve a $30 million bond referendum.
Bettendorf already has a maximum-levy PPEL and gets more per-pupil funding from the state than Davenport.
Also on Tuesday, Bettendorf voters will be asked to endorse another tax increase by approving the bond sale, which would account for almost half of the $63 million in desired school upgrades and expansions that have been identified. Keep in mind: The district's entire budget last year was about $68 million.
It also is possible Bettendorf taxpayers will again be asked for a tax increase when a final recommendation is made in January on whether to replace the Life Fitness Center, Splash Landing Family Aquatic Center and the Herbert D. Goettsch Community Center under a recreation overhaul.
So, we have one district that is scrambling to cover the cost of a deep decline in population and another that is scrambling to accommodate growth. Both need money to accomplish their goals.
For voters, it's about the money. Nobody likes a property tax increase, and such considerations are wisely accompanied by appraisals of previous performance.
Recent spending and proposed spending are voters' best gauges — where waning or corrupted confidence can collide with the desire to do right by the kids.