Council members discuss collaborating with members of the USD 231 school board.

Council members discuss collaborating with members of the USD 231 school board. Photo courtesy of Rick Poppitz,

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Special to The Gardner News

Danedri Thompson
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School board and city council members pledged to collaborate in the future during a joint meeting of both bodies on Sept. 30. The joint meeting was at the invitation of city officials.
There were brief moments of tension during the almost two-hour meeting. Officials exchanged concerns about tax abatements. The city council has the authority to approve tax abatements that limit the amount of property taxes developments pay to the district.
“As a district, we’re greatly impacted by the decisions of governing bodies,” school board president Mark Grannell, said.
Mayor Chris Morrow said it presents a challenge when cities like Gardner and Edgerton compete with one another for business development.
“We gain better economic results from that approach,” Grannell said. “We don’t want to see where we get into a bidding war.”
Grannell said he understood the fine line between attracting businesses to broaden the tax base with incentives. New businesses typically increase the number of students in the district, however.
City administrator Cheryl Harrison-Lee led off discussion with a presentation about the city’s future plans, which include a comprehensive plan update.
As part of the plan update, she said a citizen’s group will assist. Morrow asked the district if they would provide a member to serve as a liaison to the citizen group as well.
“One of the biggest interests we have in the development of land is what’s going around our schools,” Grannell said. “We have a vested interest in that.”
Harrison-Lee’s presentation listed past collaborations between the city of Gardner and USD 231. For example, she said the district and city both assisted in the funding of a Grand Street extension. The road leads to the district’s newest elementary school. In the future, she suggested both entities could work together to perhaps draw Google fiber to the district.
School superintendent Bill Gilhaus also provided a presentation. He listed the building of the new elementary school and ongoing construction of a new middle school without a tax rate increase as recent district successes. He said the district does not anticipate needing to raise the mill levy rate for the next three years.
To date, he said the state has funded approximately 45 percent of the 2012 bond project.
Grannell said board members anticipate the recent bond project will last five to six years. At that point, the district will likely need to expand the high school.
“The board would have community input,” Gilhaus explained. “There are probably some people that would think a second high school is what they might want.”
Gilhaus said economically that might not make sense due to staffing concerns, but the community-driven process will determine how the district proceeds on building a second high school or expanding the existing one.
Council member Steve Shute said he would like to be better informed about district planning. Shute said the school’s high mill levy restrains the city’s ability to raise funds for its infrastructure.
Gilhaus said during the last bond issue process, school officials had numerous discussions with city staff.
“We did communicate,” he said.
Council member Larry Fotovich asked if school officials can point to what city projects directly influenced student population growth. He suggested the district would probably prefer to see new businesses rather than multi-family housing units developed in Gardner.
Gilhaus agreed that a focus on commercial development would be preferred, however he said the district will educate every child within its boundaries.
Grannell said much of the recent growth wasn’t necessarily easily related to one development. Instead, he said there are lots of kids in the district who live with several families in one household.
“We’re seeing three families, four families in one household,” Grannell said. He noted that in most of the district’s school buildings, approximately 50 percent of the students are on free and reduced lunches.
Fotovich said in the ideal world, we have a blank canvas.
“How do we work together to get the most bang for the buck for each acre of developable land?” He asked. “We have a blank canvas and let’s develop it the way we want. I’m here for the people who are already here now. If more people come, we’re doing it right.”