The outcome of Tuesday’s Claremore School Bond election is more than saying yes to more and better classrooms, school buses and athletic facilities. It’s about giving the city and central Rogers County a literal shot — a $42.645 million shot — in the economic arm.

Agreed, it’s a megadose, but, “if you want the quality of your community to improve you have to spend money on it, and spend that money on the institutions that count.” That’s how Allen Stout, a veteran real estate broker, puts it. Stout speaks from experience and he emphasizes, “schools count.”

He should know. Stout is both the son of a career superintendent and a successful broker of residential and commercial properties throughout Claremore and the surrounding county for the last 23 years.

But, you don’t have to be an educator, a businessman or a longtime resident of the area to realize Claremore is starting to lag behind some of its more progressive neighbors.



THE PAST



There was a time, in the late 1990s, when Claremore was the fastest growing city in the state. Legislative leaders were touting a growth agenda in Oklahoma City, and local community leaders were talking big-time development inside and outside the city limits. One of the city’s critical assets was an outstanding school system. But, that time passed. Leadership groups never quite saw eye-to-eye on what was good and bad growth and, in the end, Claremore lost the big business development deals to our neighbor to the west. Retail growth stalled and the school population began to outstrip the investment in facilities.



THE COMPETITION



The comparisons with Owasso are inevitable.

“We’ve seen some megabonds passed (in Owasso) and seen the growth that has resulted ... commercial growth that has expanded the tax base and in turn has been good for the school system,” area real estate businessman Steve Oliver said. He lives in Claremore, has children in the school system and also has first-hand working experience in Owasso.

Indications are Owasso is planning for a long-term growth cycle. Its school patrons will also be considering a $40 million plus school bond on Tuesday.

Owasso is just one example of how community self-investment makes the difference.

Kathy Geyer, the vice president of the Rogers County Real Estate Association, says Claremore school patrons who aren’t impressed with the Owasso comparison can look south on Route 66, at the small community of Verdigris.

“It’s relatively apparent to those in the business and should be apparent to the public. You can see it in the Verdigris community. The investment in the school there is a big factor in the growth of that community and the growth of the schools,” Geyer said.

“Obviously, Claremore should be getting a cue,” she said.

Oliver agrees. “In my line of business, one of the top priorities for people coming into the area is the reputation of the school district.

“I’m supportive of the school bond. I’ve been supportive of every school bond ever voted on in Claremore. But, I do think we are a little behind in our facilities,” he said.

Stout, Oliver and Geyer have a business perspective on the situation. Schools are definitely a selling point and should be a point of pride in any community.



THE PLAN

FOR TOMORROW



The inside viewpoint comes from community members who make up the School Board and the volunteer Building Steering Committee. They have been elected and appointed to determine the best course of action for providing an optimum educational experience at the most efficient price.

What they came up with is a master plan “instead of a Band-Aid approach,” Steering Committee member Lynn Ashbaugh said.

Claremore School patrons have been historically supportive of bond issues. They’ve voted $2 million here, $4 million there and so on every two, three or four years for the last 10 years. Those votes focused primarily on building a solid academic foundation within the school system. Grade schools were built to accommodate growing grade school populations. New classrooms were added to the high school and a new junior high building was constructed. All the time, school officials played catch up with deteriorating rooftops and older facilities. The money was just enough or never enough.

Today, Claremore Schools are over capacity in every area — a total of 448 students over capacity. Classrooms are being held in portable buildings that were once intended for storage space.

Compounding the urgency of the facility crisis is the fact that city schools will be advancing to Class 6A in athletic competition come the fall of 2008. Aging fieldhouse and football facilities are nothing short of an embarrassment. The football stadium is 47 years old. The fieldhouse 26 years old. Both are substandard in physical condition and inadequate for the number of students, athletic programs and various activities that utilize those facilities.

“Frankly, when we began working on this and trying to decide what needed to be done, when we looked, it was very easy to find the answers. It was very simple to see where we needed go,” said David Jones, Claremore businessman, CHS graduate and chair of the Steering Committee.

With new financing options available, the $42.645 million plan will build a new south elementary school, reconfigure the city’s elementary school system to house pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, renovate Central Upper Elementary into an administrative center to also house the Alternative Learning and Project CEEP, build a new sixth grade wing at the Will Rogers Junior High, a new classroom wing at the High School and new athletic facilities — a new football stadium and a new fieldhouse.

Some may ask, why include athletics? Committee members rightly assess that “sports facilities can help give identity to and raise the stature of a school.... For many people, a sports facility is often the first impression — and the largest impression — a school makes.”

But, the plan being put to voters Tuesday is about more than athletics. It’s an ambitious plan with broader community implications.

Jones equates it to the “gift of the Robson Family,” the Performance Arts Center which has enhanced the music and performing arts programs in Claremore Schools and throughout northeast Oklahoma. The 1-year-old center has also already been the site of numerous quality stage performances and has spawned a broader community interest in the arts and humanities — a Claremore Symphony League has been formed and children’s theater programs developed.

“That ($14.5 million) gift has shown us what a first rate facility could do for the community. They set the standard, raised the bar. With this bond issue, we hope to follow suit,” Jones said.

“We wanted (the building plan) to be fair and get everything we need now,” he explained. “There is a concern that it will be tying Claremore’s hands, financially, for 10 years; but the plan is to build what we need to meet the growth for the next 10, 15 and 25 years’ needs,” Jones said.

The plan appears to be sound and well thought out. The goal, according to committee members, is to have buildings well on the way to completion within three years, locking in construction costs.



VOTE YES



With that said, the management of the Daily Progress is encouraging all 12,551 eligible school patrons to vote yes.

And, when the yes votes win, we encourage members of the Steering Committee to stay involved with the progress of the project they so aptly put together.

We asked that elected School Board members remember they are working in the public’s best interest and that they and the superintendent they have hired are charged with keeping a close watch on the financial well-being of the school district.

We remind voters that they can hold school leadership accountable both inside and outside the ballot box.

In turn, we will follow the money — from the passage of the bond issue, to the sell of the bonds, to the expenditure of the funds and the resulting progress.

Say “yes” to the educational future of your children, your grandchildren and the community’s children and make a statement to financial investors, developers and surrounding communities — Claremore is a happening place and building with tomorrow in mind.

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