School Board poised to assess condition of buildings and grounds, explore funding options in face of budget crunch
Faced by a budget crunch that will curtail efforts to upgrade buildings and grounds, Grafton School District officials are poised to study the condition of facilities and explore funding options, including a possible referendum.
The School Board on Monday agreed to have Supt. Mel Lightner and Business Director Kristen Kollath prepare a request for proposals from architects and construction firms to assess facilities.
Having an updated assessment done, Lightner told the board, would be the first in a series of steps that could also include forming a citizens group to review the study results and prioritize upgrade needs.
Based on the assessment and residents’ input, the board could then decide if a referendum should be held to solicit public funds for the work, he said.
“We’ve got some real aging buildings whose infrastructure is falling apart,” Lightner said.
“I think the only way we can fix this may be to ask our residents for help through a referendum.”
Based on a 2010 study by Plunkett Raysich Architects that revealed deteriorating facilities throughout the district, the board in August 2012 identified $21.5 million in needed upgrades.
In April 2013, the board agreed to spend $2.2 million on the most pressing needs, with the cost covered through a $1.8 million loan and $400,000 from the district’s fund balance. The upgrades included installing new bleachers for Grafton High School football and soccer fields and pool, roof work at Woodview Elementary School, tuck pointing and other repairs at the high school, John Long Middle School and elementary schools.
The district was able to avoid holding a referendum because the $1.8 million loan is being repaid under the state-imposed revenue cap.
Because of state revenue cuts to school districts, “it is increasingly difficult to pay for upgrades out of the yearly operating budget,” Lightner said.
“If you borrow money under the revenue cap, I think you will erode the quality of education in the district,” he added.
Asking for additional funds through a referendum may be the district’s only alternative, Lightner told the board.
In a March 10 presentation to the board, Director of Maintenance Jamie Scofield said the most recent upgrades have helped maintain facilities, but many other problems remain, including cracked mortar, brickwork and parking lots; broken and corroded pipes and electrical systems; defective heating and air-conditioning units; and worn carpeting and floor and ceiling tiles.
Although some repairs are being made, Lightner said, others will have to be deferred. With the district facing a projected deficit of $850,000 in the 2014-15 budget, the board will have to make difficult cost-cutting decisions that preclude upgrades, he added.
In response, Lightner proposed a five-step, two-year process he said could lead to the district holding a referendum by April 2016. He suggested that from June through August the board request proposals from firms for an comprehensive assessment of facilities, with the study to be done from September to December.
In January 2015, Lightner said, the board could appoint a committee of residents to review the study, tour buildings and propose upgrades. Those proposals could be presented to the board by September 2015.
From September to December 2015, the board could review its options and seek additional input from staff members, residential surveys, focus groups and other sources, Lightner said.
In December 2015 or January 2016, the board could make a decision on whether to hold a referendum by as early as April 2016.
“It takes that long to do it right,” Lightner said of the two-year plan. “These things don’t just happen overnight.”
Even so, several board members voiced concerns about the process.
Board Treasurer Paul Lorge said that if the board decided in January 2016 to hold a referendum, more than three months might be needed to give residents enough time to weigh their options.
“That may be too short of a window,” Lorge said.
Board President Terry Ziegler said he wasn’t sure the district should hold a referendum given its current budget challenges, including anticipated cuts in staffing and employee benefits.
“Don’t make the assumption that we are going to a referendum,” Lightner replied. “We’re just looking at it.”
Board member Clayton Riddle said reassessing facilities and identifying priorities for upgrades are much-needed steps.
“If we don’t plan for what we need, it won’t get done,” Riddle said. “It’s like having 100 people at your house every day and never fixing anything.”
Lightner said a request for proposals on assessing facilities will be presented to the board as soon as possible.