Board moving forward with high school renovation

Northeast Dubois High School


DUBOIS — If everything goes according to schedule, Northeast Dubois Schools will have a junior-senior high school by August 2020.

At its meeting Tuesday, the school board held a public hearing on the $4.69 million renovation to Northeast Dubois High School that will create space for the seventh and eighth grades to move to the building for the 2020-21 school year. Following the hearing, the board approved the project resolution that moves the project forward.

The board is pursuing a construction project now because the corporation will pay off a chunk of debt this year, freeing up some space in the debt service fund. School corporations use the debt service fund to cover larger construction projects. To do so, schools generally wait until previous debt is paid off, then take on new debt to keep a steady property tax rate.

Renovating the high school is the first step the board is taking to restructure the school district to hopefully eliminate the need for a second property tax referendum to supplement the corporation’s state funding. Voters approved a referendum in 2016 that runs out at the end of 2023.

“We were very fortunate that voters gave us that referendum in 2016 to allow us time to make these decisions,” said Bernie Knies, the board’s vice president.

According to a presentation from George Link of VPS Architecture of Evansville, who has been working with the board since last year to plan for the corporation’s future, the project at the high school will renovate space on the north side of the current gymnasium to create a niche for the seventh and eighth grades. The project will also remodel the agriculture, career and technical and science classrooms.

The total construction budget is $4,565,000.

Following Link’s presentation, Jim Elizondo presented the payment structure for the project. Elizondo is an investment banker with Stifel Public Finance of Fort Wayne and has worked with the corporation for many years as a financial advisor.

According to Elizondo’s models, taking on the bonds for this project would result in a roughly 15 cent increase in the debt service tax levy, however, taxpayers will not see that high of an increase in their taxes because the school will be paying off old debt in the coming years that will keep the tax rate at the 2018 rate.

The exception will be 2020 when property owners will see an increase of about 5 cents per $100 of assessed value over the 2018 rate. According to Elizondo’s estimates, that will cause a $15 increase in taxes for the year on a $100,000 home and a $60 increase in taxes for the year on a $250,000 home.

Elizondo also estimates the bonding process to add about $125,000 to the project costs, bringing the total project budget to $4,690,000, to be repaid over 15 years.

“When we go to the bond markets, we incur some additional costs,” Elizondo explained.

Following the presentations, several audience members asked about the board’s plan for after the renovation is complete, specifically when Celestine Elementary will close. Board members said they haven’t made any final decisions for that yet, and are trying to take the process one step at a time. Board President Mary Pankey pointed out that it will be more than a year before the high school renovation is complete. Another school year will have passed by that time, and the board will have another year of enrollment and school funding data to look at by then to help guide their decisions.

“All we can do tonight is say we’re going to start this project,” Pankey said. “We just need to take it one step at a time.”

Still, audience members pushed for a more concrete answer.

“I don’t think you can take on a project of this size without knowing where you’re going to end up,” Celestine resident Chris Hasenour told the board.

Hasenour pointed out that the Celestine community is seeing growth and new homes being built right now, and he worries that closing the school will stifle that growth and cause some families to send their children to other school districts, exacerbating Northeast Dubois’ falling enrollment.

Board member Kelly Knies said that while that is a concern for the board, he doesn’t believe closing Celestine Elementary will have a large impact on enrollment, if that’s what the board decides to do. He pointed out that enrollment is falling annually now with Celestine open, and Pankey added that even without Celestine Elementary, families in Celestine will still live closer to Dubois Elementary than other local elementary schools.

Hasenour also questioned why the school board isn’t considering putting another property tax referendum on the ballot after the current one runs out. That way, he said, taxpayers can have more of a say in the school’s future.

None of the board members support a second property tax referendum. When the school campaigned for the first referendum, they said, they told taxpayers it was to give the board time to make hard decisions about the corporation’s future given falling enrollment and the subsequent loss of funding, and they committed to doing what they could to eliminate the need for a referendum.

“We’re trying to live within our means, just like you do at home,” Pankey said.

Board members also pointed out that a referendum is a gamble because there’s no guarantee voters will pass it. Waiting to make decisions until a referendum passes or fails would be waiting until the last possible minute, and it would back the board into a corner should it fail. And if enrollment keeps falling, there’s no guarantee the school won’t need another referendum in the future just to stay open, Pankey said.

Board members said that none of them want to close Celestine Elementary or make any of the difficult decisions they have to right now, but they have to plan for the corporation’s future and do what it takes to maintain a high quality of education.

“If it were easy, we would have done it years ago,” Pankey said. “I really think we’ve waited as long as we can.”

Once the renovation at the high school is complete and the seventh and eighth grades move up, the board will again look at the corporation’s need to determine what to do with the open space in Dubois Middle School. For now, though, no decisions have been made on that, and the board’s focus remains on the current project.

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