Editor’s Note: The attached master plan for new schools is an updated version of the one seen here previously.
School officials asked Gardner City Council members to commit to partially fund infrastructure for a new elementary school and a new middle school Wednesday night.
Bill Miller, USD 231 Director of Operations, unveiled two design proposals for a bond issue that would build a new middle school and a new elementary school between Plum Creek and Willow Springs subdivisions in Gardner.
He asked the council commit to help fund $3.5 million in infrastructure upgrades necessary to bring the project to fruition.
Both proposals would require that Grand Street be extended east of Gardner Road to connect to Moonlight Road. Both would also require upgrades to the existing sewer system.
USD 231 owns land adjacent to Pioneer Ridge Middle School, which is located on the northwest side of town, Miller said the district is rapidly growing on the south east side of town where high density, multi-family housing exists.
“We did a boundary analysis to put students near Pioneer Ridge,” he said. “We would have to reach so far into south Gardner, it wouldn’t work.”
Moonlight Elementary School on the southeast side of town has reached its capacity, and a portion of its student population is being served by trailers next to the school building. Wheatridge Middle School is currently serving 38 more students than the building was designed to handle. By 2014, Pioneer Ridge Middle School and Madison Elementary will also reach capacity.
School board member Mark Grannell said the growth projections the district is using are conservative estimates.
The growth we are anticipating here is based on historical trends,” he said. “It’s not due to houses being built. The need for the school is right now. It’s not dependent on building permits.”
Miller explained school officials used a demographer and based its projections on 3-5 percent growth each year – less growth than the statistical average over the course of the last decade.
For example, the district saw 8.2 percent growth between 2003 and 2004. Between 2004 and 2005, they district grew 5.6 percent. At its lowest point over the course of the last 8 years, the school’s size jumped 4.8 percent. On average, enrollment increased 6.2 percent per year for the last 8 years.
Miller said there are funding mechanisms in place that would assist the city in funding a Grand Street extension and sewer upgrades. By 2015, he explained, the Walmart tax-increment financing (TIF) should expire.
The TIF requires that all Walmart property taxes and sales taxes be used to pay infrastructure related to the Walmart retail development. Additionally, Miller said, the half-cent sales tax should pay off the Gardner Aquatic Center and Celebration Park by 2015 as well.
However, Mayor Dave Drovetta explained, the half cent sales tax will sunset in 2015 and to renew it would require the approval of voters.
Also, the funds derived from the TIF expiration are supposed to cut the 6.5 mill tax increase Gardner citizens received this year.
“We’re in the position of feeling the need to eliminate spending and not add debt,” Drovetta said.
Superintendent Bill Gilhaus said school officials feel pressure to keep costs down as well, but that needs to be balanced with the need to deliver a “world class education” to Gardner students.
“We have had the highest mill levy in the state,” Gilhaus said. “The pressure goes both ways.”
Council member Steve Hale said the location is logical and ideal. And, he said, in the past the city has been a willing and eager partner in building new schools.
“But now there’s another part of the equation, and that’s that the city is broke,” Hale said.
However, if district voters approve a bond issue for the new schools, he said it’s the city’s responsibility to put the infrastructure in place.
Miller said the Grand Street extension and upgrades to the sewer system are already listed on the city’s capital improvement plan. The district is simply asking the city to move those projects to the top of the list.
Drovetta said many of the projects on the city’s list are currently unfunded, and some aren’t identified as projects.
“We would be moving a project that doesn’t exist (the Grand Street extension) to replace a project that isn’t funded,” he said.
The sewer funding would also be a challenge, city public works director David Greene said.
About four projects worth $6 million would need to be completed so the sewer system could support a school at that location.
“Those projects have been deferred to 2015, because the city can’t take on any more debt,” he said. “…There’s four years of debt service that the city doesn’t have the ability to pay.”
Gilhaus pressed the council to make a commitment quickly – preferably before a new council is seated following the April 5 election. He worried that it would take four to five months for a new council to have the knowledge to make such a large decision.
“We would like a decision within three-to-four weeks,” Gilhaus said.
Councilman Hale, who isn’t running to retain his seat, and council member Brian Broxterman, whose term expires in 2013, said they wouldn’t feel comfortable saddling a new council with such a decision.
“We’re so close to the election, they should be involved in the decision,” Broxterman said.
Hale said whether the project moves forward would be up to the voters.
“Let’s see how much pain our constituents are willing to take to make this good thing happen,” he said.
Voters in the Gardner Edgerton School District will be asked to approve a $60 to $70 million bond issue to build the schools. Gilhaus wouldn’t say how much that would increase the school district mill levy, however he said it would be more than a 2 mill increase.