members weigh in on $38.5M school construction plan
Written by Columb
PETERSBURG – The local school board Monday made a presentation to Upper Township Committee concerning its plans for a $38.5 million project that would renovate portions of the primary and middle schools and build a new elementary school.
School district architect Bob Garrison Jr. said the district is proposing to build a new elementary school at a cost of $22,641,875 and renovate the primary and middle schools at a cost of $6,097,337 and $9,821,032 respectively. The state would provide $9,792,198 in grant and debt service aid to offset the costs, he said.
The school board has targeted a Jan. 25 referendum date on a $32,192,896 bond (which includes the local share and debt service aid from that state) that would fund the projects, said school board president James Arsenault. First, the school board plans to hold a number of public information sessions and tours of schools starting on Oct. 16 with a tour of the elementary school, he said.
In December, the school board will vote on the scope and whether to move forward with the project, said Arsenault.
But members of township committee questioned why the bond referendum would be held in January.
“Why not April?” asked Mayor Richard Palombo, who said that more voters might participate in the regularly scheduled school budget and school board election.
Arsenault said the school board needed to know if the bond was approved before working on the school budget for the next school year.
“We need to know what the budget process is,” said Arsenault.
“I think it’s a total disservice to our residents,” said Committeeman Curtis Corson. “Half our residents are going to be in a warmer climate. You picked the date when most of the people are going to be gone.”
Mike Garcia, of the school district’s auditing firm Ford, Scott & Associates, said the referendum had to be put up for a vote in time for a June 30 bond sale. An April election would be too late, he said.
“We need the bond referendum soon rather than later,” said Garcia.
“There was no attempt to disenfranchise anybody,” said Arsenault.
Garrison outlined the repairs and renovations needed at the primary and middle schools.
At the primary school, built in 1990 with a 1998 addition, exterior renovations include new doors, roof drains, replacing wood windows, replacing some sidewalk, new outside lighting, replacing an underground storage tank, and coating and restriping the parking lot. Interior work would replace ceiling tiles, hallway lighting and kitchen equipment. The most expensive element of the plan is replacing the school’s HVAC system and new electrical and plumbing construction.
Total cost for the primary school would be $6,097,337. The state would pick up 40 percent or $2,438,935, leaving a local share of $3,658,402.
At the middle school, built in 1973 with 1981 and 2000 additions, exterior renovations include reconfiguring school entrances, roof restoration, replacing all exterior windows, replacing all exterior doors, and removing rooftop HVAC equipment. Inside, the cafeteria would be renovated, flooring would be replaced, new interior doors, replacing ceiling tiles and kitchen equipment, renovating bathrooms and lockers, renovating the science lab and turning the wood shop to a technology lab. HVAC, plumbing and electrical work will also be done.
Total cost for the middle school would be $9,821,032. The state would pick up 40 percent of the cost or $$3,928,413, leaving a local share of $5,892,619.
Garrison said the school board looked at renovating the existing elementary school and estimated the cost at $16 million. The state would have picked up $5 million of that cost, he said.
The cost to taxpayers in that case would have been around $23 million for all three schools, as opposed to $28 million in the current plan. But Garrison said it didn’t make sense to “put a new roof and HVAC system on a 1950’s building.”
“It’s a 1950’s building,” he said. “It’s classrooms are too small. It has served us well. We did the laundry list of deficiencies at that building. There’s not really a classroom in that building that meets regulations today.”
A new elementary school would cost $22,641,875 to build. Garrison said the school would be built behind the current elementary school and the site of the existing school would be turned into a multipurpose field and softball field. A new parking lot for 239 spaces and a bus staging area for students at the primary and elementary schools would be added, he said.
The new school would include 22 new classrooms, all at least 800 square feet, an art room, computer room, music room, cafeteria, stage, gymnasium and storage room. School district offices would be moved from the middle school to new offices at the elementary school.
The state would pick up $3,424,850 of the construction cost in the form of debt service aid. State debt service aid would not be paid up front to the Upper Township school district but paid annually over the life of the bond. In the end, the local share for the elementary school would be $19,217,025.
Garcia said the school district would look to bond $32,192,896, which includes the $3,424,850 in debt service aid because that money is not paid up front. But the local share would total $28,768,046 for all three projects, he said.
Garcia laid out the potential tax impact for residents assuming a 15-year, 20-year and 25-year bond. Over 15 years the annual impact would be $96.61 for every $100,000 of assessed value; over 20 years that annual impact would be $83.72; over 25 years it would be $79.29 a year.
For an average home assessed at $340,000, the tax impact of the school construction bond would be $269.60 a year for a 25-year bond, said Garcia. That totals $6,740 for the average homeowner.
Committee members said that would be a tough sell for township residents.
“You’re asking for a lot of money here,” said Palombo.
Palombo suggested building a new school and selling property across from the middle school in Petersburg.
“You have a lot of valuable property in the township,” he said. “If you go to two buildings you have less administrative staff, you can sell a property and offset the tax increase. You have an uphill battle with the amount of money we’re talking about. You’re going to have to consider selling something to offset this cost.”
Committeeman Frank Conrad said combining schools might make sense since the student population has been going down.
Committeewoman Kristine Gabor asked if residents would have a choice between building a new elementary school and renovating the existing one. Garrison said the scope of the projects would be decided by the school board. There cannot be a choice between projects in the bond referendum, he said.
“The board of education has to make the decision,” he said. “You can’t offer new versus refurbish.”
Arsenault said the school board has not looked at the possibility of building a new school for all the lower grades during his three-year tenure. It has examined the effect on students if the elementary school is renovated and not replaced, he said.
Grades may have to be displaced to other buildings, he said. Split sessions would also be an option, he said.