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Yellow Springs Schools facilities upgrades— $30 million cost expected

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Yellow Springs School District leaders anticipate a $30 million price tag, at minimum, to upgrade the district’s buildings, whether those improvements take the form of new construction or major renovations.

The amount, presented during a school board work session Saturday morning, Nov. 21, is similar to projected total costs, ranging from about $27 million to $31 million, listed when the district began an active push in 2017 to address identified facility needs at its two campuses.

“Now we’re almost four years further down the road,” Superintendent Terri Holden told the board. “Where do we go from here?”

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The facilities issue isn’t going away, board President Steve Conn said at the start of the meeting, which was conducted online and streamed on the district’s YouTube Channel.

“As everybody knows, our facilities aren’t getting any better,” he said.

The purpose of the work session, according to Conn earlier in the week, was to “reset” the district’s focus back on facilities, after leaders’ attention shifted temporarily amid pandemic-related school closings and the transition to online learning. A story in the Nov. 19 News reviewed the district’s prior efforts regarding facilities, including a failed levy attempt in May 2018.

The Saturday meeting primarily featured presentations by Superintendent Holden and Treasurer Tammy Emrick, who assessed the district’s current status in addressing facilities and laid out a timeline necessary to put a new bond issue on the November 2021 ballot.

Holden told the board that as of that weekend, she and Emrick had met twice with a representative of the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission, or OFCC, about participating in a relatively new OFCC program that allows for a predetermined reimbursement amount, based on a district’s relative wealth, to cover renovation as well as new construction. Yellow Springs currently qualifies for a 26% reimbursement, according to Holden. As the News reported last spring, the board voted in March to pursue the potential OFCC funding.

Holden said Saturday that the OFCC, which is back in operation after shutting down over the spring and summer due to COVID-19, will now move forward with preparing enrollment projections and updating its recommendations for Yellow Springs facilities based on its original March 2017 assessment. She said the agency does not plan to conduct a new assessment.

In the meantime, the district has put out a call for bids for a “pre-bond architect,” who will work with the district as it develops a new master plan. Holden said she anticipates recommending a name at the board’s next regular meeting, Thursday, Dec. 10.

Also in December, Holden hopes to begin working on a new strategic plan outlining districtwide goals that will accompany the facilities planning. The last strategic plan was completed in 2011 and ended with the graduation of the class of 2020. The superintendent said she does not intend to produce a plan as “ambitious” as the last, but added she feels that setting a clear vision for the district is important in deciding on the most appropriate facilities for implementing its goals.

“As we prepare to engage with discussion about facilities, how do we have some touchstones about where we’re going? We need to know where we’re going,” Holden asked.

Her anticipated timeline then allows for four months of community engagement — January through April 2021 — toward developing a new strategic plan and a facilities master plan. More information about how that will look is expected to be presented at the December board meeting. If all proceeds on schedule, the board will approve a facilities master plan in May 2021 and seek OFCC approval in June. With OFCC controlling board approval, the board would set ballot language in July. A bond campaign would begin in August and continue until the November election.

The measure could take the form of a property tax levy or a combined property tax and income tax levy, Emrick said. In a Powerpoint presentation that Conn asked to be posted on the district’s website, Emrick listed several levy options and the associated costs to taxpayers for the highest millage.

• A $30 million bond would come to about 8.52 mills,

• A $32 million bond would be about 9.08 mills and

• A $33 million bond would be about 9.37 mills, she estimated.

The cost to a homeowner of a $200,000 appraised home for 9.37 mills would be $655.74 a year, Emrick calculated.

If combined with a traditional income tax, Emrick told the board that a 0.25% income tax and a 7.5-mill property tax or a 0.5% income tax and a 5.64-mill property tax would each support a $33 million bond issue.

The amounts presented represented the costs associated with five potential scenarios, including constructing new buildings at one or both campuses, undergoing major renovations or combining the two approaches. The superintendent noted that costs were similar regardless of approach if the district addressed all the major needs identified in building assessments.

In response to followup questions from the News about the anticipated lifespan and interest of a new bond issue, Emrick wrote in an email that the time length of each of the bond scenarios presented to the board is 37 years, and that the “totals would not include the interest which would be accrued over the life of the bonds.” In an additional followup email she wrote that the “interest rate that the district would pay is determined through the bond sale process. Essentially the rate is locked in at the time of the sale.” In further reply, she wrote that the district anticipates a 4% interest rate, and that the payments come out of the bond retirement fund.

In her work session presentation, Emrick listed the levies currently held by the district, along with their expiration dates.

Two separate “emergency” levies, which support the general fund, expire Dec. 31, 2024. One is a 10-year, 7.33-mill levy that brings in $1.06 million a year, and the other is an eight-year, 6.32-mill levy that brings in $915,000. A 1.2-mill five-year permanent improvement levy, which pays for capital projects and large purchases, such as buses, generates about $142,000 annually and will be up for renewal in November 2022. A $4.5 million bond levy approved in 2001 for renovations at both school campuses expires on Dec. 31, 2026. A continuing 1% income tax also supports the schools.

In terms of new and renewable levies, local voters can anticipate seeing a new bond levy for facilities in November 2021, a renewal or substitution of the permanent improvement levy in November 2022 and a renewal or combination of the emergency levies as early as November 2023.

If the district adopts a plan that meets with OFCC approval, then it also will need to add a measure to support facilities maintenance, which the OFCC requires of participating districts. Emrick said the amount, to be determined, could be added to the new bond levy, with specified funds earmarked for maintenance. It also could be introduced as a new levy or combined with the current permanent improvement levy and made permanent — with either option taking place before or after the project is completed.

School board member TJ Turner said he appreciated putting maintenance considerations on the table, as he felt issues of continuing maintenance had not been addressed to the community’s satisfaction during the previous facilities levy effort.

In aligning with the OFCC, the district faces several conditions, Holden told the board.

One is that the agency has a two-thirds ratio policy in that if the cost to renovate is more than two-thirds of the cost for new construction, then it will not provide funding. According to the district’s estimates, local renovation costs would be well over that limit.

In addition, the OFCC recommends that districts with an enrollment of fewer than 1,500 students have a single building or campus, and it does not provide funds for any building with fewer than 350 students. Last year’s district enrollment was 699, including open enrollment students, according to district records. This year’s total has dropped to 685, with 308 at Mills Lawn and 377 at the middle/high school. Holden has stated she believes the current decrease is due to the pandemic.

Concerning the OFCC, board President Conn noted that some members of the community had been suspicious of the state agency’s 2017 assessment findings and worried the group had a bias for new construction. But, he reminded those watching the online meeting, a second assessment conducted a year later by an independent engineering firm came to similar conclusions.

“The OFCC does not care one way or the other what we do with our facilities,” Conn said. “They are the stewards of public money.”

“I’ve thought a lot about that, Steve,” Holden said, comcerning response to the assessments. “Eventually, when people are telling you the same thing, there is truth to it.”

While Holden and the board reiterated that the master plan would be developed with community input, they also shared some of their personal thoughts about it.

Conn noted the cost savings in building and maintaining a single K–12 facility, and said a list of all the possible savings — a shared gym, cafeteria and library, for example — would be a helpful contribution to community discussions.

Holden repeated her previously stated preference for building a new, single, K–12 facility, most likely at the current middle/high school campus, not only for financial reasons, but also for educational outcomes.

“Having everyone together is helpful in so many ways,” she said. “It allows for tremendous collaboration. That benefit can’t be emphasized enough.”

Board Vice-president Aïda Merhemic agreed.

“In visiting other schools, we found tremendous value to [a shared K–12 campus],” she said, referring to the district’s organized trips two years ago. “From a human-development” point of view, there is benefit in having a wide range of ages available to each other, Merhemic said.

Turner highlighted the question of energy efficiency, which had come up in developing the previous master plan. He noted that some community members criticized new construction as a waste of resources and materials.

He suggested that maintaining a single building would bring about related energy savings over time.

“We own two of the largest buildings in Yellow Springs,” he said of the district. “If we’re committed to limiting our carbon footprint, what does that look like?” he asked.

Conn added that demolition doesn’t mean everything “gets tossed in a landfill.” Much material is recycled, he said.

“This is a big lift,” Holden said of the work anticipated in the coming months. “This eventually will be the community’s plan.”

“At the top [of consideration] is what’s good for our children,” she added. “It’s important to keep kids at the center of this discussion. Let’s assume positive intent on the part of everybody.”

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