2003-11-13 / Front Page
Officials detail costs of high school project
BY TARA PETERSEN
Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series examining aspects of a Dec. 9 school referendum in Monroe. This week we focus on the cost and details of the plan itself, and next week we will look at components of the proposed land diversion and opposition to the plan.
MONROE — As the debate continues to rage over a complex school construction plan, officials last week got to the bottom line:
It will add less than 4 cents on the tax rate, or approximately $58 for the owner of property assessed at $150,000.
That’s the cost solely for the construction of a high school in Thompson Park. Officials explained at recent meetings that, unlike a failed 2002 proposal, this plan does not include funds for the conversion of either the current high school to a middle school, or the current middle school to an elementary school.
Funding for that work would have to come from some other means, officials said last week.
The proposed $83 million referendum set for Dec. 9 is designed to address growing enrollment concerns.
Seventeen new portable classrooms have been installed this year at Brookside School, Applegarth School and Monroe Township High School to deal with the immediate problem, according to Schools Superintendent Ralph Ferrie.
The district’s long-term plan is centered around building a new 1,800-capacity high school that would be completed by 2008. Last year’s $113 million referendum was defeated in part, officials said, because of its noncentral location and cost.
The proposed referendum is going before voters, officials said, with three advantages over last year’s plan: The new high school would be cheaper and more centrally located, and would not require building more athletic fields.
The plans include building a new high school across School House Road from the current Monroe Township High School in county-owned Thompson Park, though the location will not be specified on the ballot question. The Thompson Park parcel currently contains numerous soccer fields that would be relocated.
Three other components are part of the plan, but would not be funded as part of it. The current high school would be converted to a middle school, Applegarth would become the district’s fifth elementary school, and the Brookside and Woodland schools would also need some alterations as part of a grade reconfiguration.
The middle school would take the sixth grade along with the seventh and eighth grades, thus opening up more space in the elementary schools.
According to officials, once the referendum passes, the Board of Education would apply to state Green Acres to allow a land swap, or "diversion," so that the school district can acquire the 35-acre lot in exchange for 77 wooded acres adjacent to the park.
The cost to build the high school, according to School Business Administrator Wayne Holliday, will be defrayed by state grants, lowering the local share of the project to $67.7 million.
The money would be bonded for 25 years at an estimated interest rate of 4.86 percent, he said.
For a home assessed at $150,000, taxes would go up by $57.55 per year, Holliday said.
The current referendum represents a $24.1 million savings over the previous one, according to Holliday. In order to compare high school construction costs to one another, approximately $7.7 million allocated for the conversion of the middle and elementary schools must be subtracted from the $113 million total figure from 2002, which leaves $105 million as the cost for just the high school portion of that referendum.
This year’s $82.9 million project total would be defrayed by $15 million in grant funds, bringing the local share to $67.9 million — compared with $13.3 million in grants that would have been for the previous referendum, when the local share would be $92 million.
Officials said the savings came from avoiding the need to purchase land, and from redesigning the high school to be slightly smaller in size without losing much capacity.
However, the middle and elementary schools would still need to be converted, something that would have to be financed separately from the referendum.
Using last year’s figures, the conversion of those schools would cost around $7 to $8 million.
"We will be able to fund some of it in our operating budget," Ferrie said last week.
Other options, he said, include a second question on the ballot in the April school election, or another referendum.
Board President Joseph Homoki said the money would not be needed until the high school project is near completion.
"It will be over a period of a couple of years. We’ll phase those things in," Homoki said.
He also said the board would consider other cuts and adjustments to the budget to allow for the added expenses, but there could be a tax impact resulting from the work on the existing schools.
"We will have to look at priorities and may have to delay or cut things of lesser priority," he said.
Another expense not included in the referendum figure is funding for a crossing guard and/or pedestrian bridge that would be necessary to aid students crossing School House Road between the new high school and the existing campus.
The cost and party responsible for another expense — relocating the soccer fields presently at Thompson Park — remains unclear.
The fields would be moved to a location south of the high school along Perrineville Road, across from the Concordia Shopping Center.
This would likely be funded at the county or state level, Homoki said.
"We’re not involved in that," Homoki said.
Township Engineer Ernie Feist said Tuesday that it is possible the township would be responsible for the cost of relocation, but that it would not be expensive since the land consists of flat, agricultural fields.
"It could be a matter of growing some grass to create [soccer] fields," Feist said.