Bond for a new high school, renovated Oil Hill to be decided with mail-in ballot this month

The Circle District will have a brand new high school and several improvements in its elementary schools, should voters approve a bond for the projects in a mail ballot election later this month.

Circle High School was built in 1962, a year before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Circle's student population had more than tripled since then. Despite the district's best efforts, the building has been deteriorating in recent years.

The bond request is for $37.12 million, or an increase of 6.89 mills. For a $100,000 home in the Circle District, that would translate into a monthly tax of $6.60. The bond would be retired no later than 2031.

Supporters of the bond expect to lock in a historically low interest rate, likely somewhere between 2.5 and 3.5 percent.

"It's really the perform storm," said Darrin Devinney, president of the political action committee to pass the bond. "The community has an opportunity to meet the needs of our kids, and the money happens to be cheap right now."

Of the 12 school districts with boundaries in Butler County, Circle's present tax levy (57.940) is the second-lowest, only to Remington's (53.054). Should the bond pass, Circle's tax would rise to about average for Butler County.

The committee has worked tirelessly the last few weeks to get information out, and even hosted four public open houses explaining the projects. It has a Facebook page (Building for Tomorrow USD 375), a Twitter account (@YesUSD375) and an email ( to answer any questions about the bond.

There has been no organized opposition to the bond committee, which also put together a promotional youtube video featuring former Miss Kansas and Circle High graduate Michelle Walthers Loss.

"I think just about everyone understands how much this is needed," Devinney said.

Mail ballots go out to registered voters on Jan. 16, and must be returned by Jan. 29.

Circle High wouldn't be the only school improved by the bond. The plans also include a renovation and expansion of Circle Oil Hill Elementary, which is currently using portable trailers as substitutes for classrooms, as well as heating and cooling upgrades for the grade schools in Benton and Towanda.

Starting new

So why not renovate Circle High, rather than build a completely new one?

That was a question carefully considered by an evaluation committee, made up of district patrons and led by an outside facilitator. After months of research, the committee concluded it made little sense to try to keep the outdated structure of the high school, which is having major electric and mechanical problems, anyway. The walls are splitting. There's moisture in the basement. It's got a bad roof.

"Unless we build new," Devinney said, "the high school is just going to be a money pit."

Circle Superintendent Jim Keller agrees. He said the high school building served Circle well for 50 years, but its troubles are mounting by the day.

"Our current boiler system is going to cost us a lot of money if we keep things the way they are now," Keller said. "The inability to maintain consistent heat throughout the building has really been a problem for a number of years. … These are things that are going to have to addressed soon, whether the bond passes or not."

Circle would be able to keep the newer parts of its building, like the auditorium and supplemental gymnasium. Students would continue using the building as the construction would be completed in phases before its expected completion in fall of 2016.

A new high school would be built big enough to hold up to 800 students, Keller said, which is about 200 more than it currently has.

"The committee didn't want to go any larger than that," Keller said. "But it gives us a growth rate of three to four percent a year, and it's going to meet our needs for decades to come."

Keller said a new Circle High would also include tangible things that have been proven to increase student performance and achievement , like generous daylight access, climate controlled classrooms, a modern ventilation system and spacious learning areas.

"We're looking at all aspects of how we can make this the most efficient facility possible, and maintain a quality environment for our kids," Keller said. "We're going to be able to offer them so much more, curriculum-wise."

Investing for the future

Devinney's wife, Laura, is a music teacher in the Circle district. He said it was important for them to buy a home in the district so their two children could attend school there.

"This is a district where families care deeply about their children and their education," Devinney said, "and they invest in both."

Circle also accepts a fair amount of out-of-district students. That could stop should the bond not pass, however, since its narrow hallways in the high school are already jam packed with teenagers. Circle's first graduating class, in 1963, had 55 graduates. That number grew to 86 in 1986. There are currently 172 students in the district for the projected Class of 2019.

It's a growing, popular district because it has a great reputation. It test scores are relatively good, and the students are relatively happy. Keller is thrilled with most of Circle's facilities.

"People look at our elementary schools, and our middle school, and they see some real positive things there," Keller said. "But when they see the high school, they say, 'I really don't know if that's the location I want my student to attend.'"

Which is why it makes perfect sense to vote for the bond, Keller said, even if voters in the district do not have children.

"When people look to bring businesses in, one of the main things they consider is the quality of education," Keller said. "A new high school in itself will bring some economic development and a big pride factor to the community. And the timing is right. We can build more for less. There are a lot of companies hungry for work right now."

Devinney said he is feeling confident about the election. He's been working on this for more than two years and has met numerous people. Some have grumbled about a possible new tax, of course, but Devinney said virtually everyone understands why the bond issue is necessary.

"It's my thought that once those needs are understood, the bond issue should pass," Devinney said. "It's real value for your tax dollar. And your tax dollar is immediately going to be turned around into something that you see every day."