The city finance department will find a way to finance a new road and upgrades to the sewer
system if a new city council requests they do so, Laura Gourley, Gardner City Finance Director, said.
“If a council so chooses to assist the school, we will find a way to do it,” Gourley said. “But I do not have a plan right now. I haven’t been directed to move forward.”
USD 231 officials requested that members of the council commit to partially fund an extension to Grand Street and sewer system upgrades for two new schools in the middle of town.
According to school officials, the estimated cost to the city would be approximately $3.5 million.
Typically, developers pay to build roads related to their projects and then dedicate the new streets to the city. However, USD 231 Superintendent Bill Gilhaus said the school district is not a developer. That’s one reason school officials are asking for the city’s help.
“A developer is a business whose soul purpose is to develop for profit,” Gilhaus said. “The school district does not profit from creating schools. Our only reason for building additional facilities is to augment a growing population.”
Officials report that Moonlight Elementary has exceeded its capacity, and a portion of that building’s students are being taught in modular classrooms adjacent to the school. Wheatridge Middle School is serving 38 more students than the building is designed to accommodate and officials estimate that Pioneer Ridge Middle School and Madison Elementary will reach capacity by 2014.
Gilhaus said a Grand Street extension funded partially by the city would be better for the community.
“If the school district had to fund the entire amount, we probably wouldn’t put in an arterial or connector road,” he said. “We could put in a private drive coming in just off of Moonlight. It’s going to affect the size and the quality of that street.”
The city’s master plan does call for an extension of Grand Street from Center Street to Moonlight Road eventually.
“This would be moving up the city’s time frame,” Gilhaus said. “And as you’re aware, the only east-west arterial road between Moonlight and Center Street is 183rd (Street).”
Although the district owns extra land near PRMS, Gilhaus said school officials will ask voters to approve an elementary school and a middle school in the center of town east of Center Street and south of the railroad tracks.
The land the district owns near PRMS will only accommodate an elementary school.
“We need an elementary school and a middle school,” Gilhaus said. “It’s much more cost effective if you can put both in one site… If all we needed was an elementary school, we could explore that option.”
Gilhaus said school officials briefly examined the possibility of building the new elementary school near PRMS.
“The boundaries do not work out well,” Gilhaus said. “We have researched that, and it’s just really delaying the inevitable.”
While development was booming northwest of town several years ago when officials purchased the land and built PRMS, high density growth – multi-family housing – is occurring further south.
“This development in the middle of town is something I don’t think was anticipated three or four years ago,” he said. “A large part of it is due to the high density housing that has been built.”
Gilhaus has yet to say how much the district will request voters spend on the new schools, however he estimated the cost would be between $60 million and $70 million during a joint council and school board meeting in early March. He told officials the bond issue would result in a mill levy increase for local property owners.
Gourley said she didn’t know if the city could foot a share in the Grand Street extension and sewer upgrades without increasing taxes.
“I don’t know that we’ll need a tax increase or not,” she said. “There may be a better way to do it.”
However, she said because council members have not directed her to research funding for the projects, she hasn’t looked into it.
Upgrades to the sewer system in the center of town are on the city’s list of capital improvement projects.
“But we’ve deferred capital projects and are really squeezing on street maintenance,” Gourley explained. “This is an unplanned, unfunded project.”
Acquiring new debt for the projects wouldn’t affect the city’s A-2 bond rating, she said.
“Not in and of itself,” she said. “Because we partnered with the school and took on $3.5 million in debt, that would not be the reason the city received a lower rating if we received one. We’ve also retired debt this year, so that doesn’t matter.”
The bigger challenge in funding the project, she said, would be cash flow.
“It’s not about taking on more debt. It’s about the cash flow of payments for things we weren’t considering at the time we were building the budget,” Gourley said.
Gilhaus said school officials are sensitive to the city’s financial limitations.
“But our rapidly increasing student population requires two new schools, and when you build schools, you have to have infrastructure, which means sewer, water, electricity and streets,” he said.