Renovations restore elementary school debate

Herald Staff Writer

JASPER — A proposed renovation reignited a debate Monday night about whether to close one or more Jasper elementary schools.

Clerk of the works Scott Stenftenagel spoke to the Greater Jasper School Board to propose a $2.1 million project. About $350,000 of that money would be used to repair the roof at Jasper High School. The remaining $1.7 million would go toward replacing carpeting and wall coverings in certain areas at Tenth and Fifth Street schools and Ireland Elementary School, as well as repairing the gymnasium roofs at Tenth and Fifth Street and constructing a new driveway at Ireland Elementary.

The school board held several discussion meetings last summer after a feasibility study by Indianapolis-based architecture firm Gibraltar Design uncovered that there is currently not enough space in any of the corporation’s three elementary buildings.

During those meetings, the board considered options to close Tenth and Fifth Street schools because they are in need of extensive renovations and could not be expanded to properly accommodate their student populations. According to that plan, Ireland Elementary School would be expanded and a new facility would be constructed on some as-yet-unknown 15-acre patch of land. At the time of those meetings, Gibraltar Design president Jim Thompson estimated that the earliest any new building could be opened would be 2016, and in the interim, Band-Aid repairs would be necessary to keep the current buildings running.

The board has not publicly discussed this issue since September, but opinions flared again as the members decided whether to spend money on buildings that may soon close.

“What I’m trying to understand is that this may be necessary now, but if somebody’s going to come back with the same numbers again next year ... for buildings that we may not want to keep using, we need to get on that elementary school decision,” said board President Nancy Habig. “If you know you’re going to close a building instead of renovate it, there are things that you might not do. You might let that carpet go threadbare.”

Board member Ken Schnaus agreed.

“How much money do we spend on a building that we most likely will not use in the next five to 10 years?” he asked. “That’s where I’m struggling.”

Superintendent Tracy Lorey explained that the corporation has a savings of nearly $2 million, which accumulated over the past two years, in its capital projects fund. There is an additional $1 million in the rainy day fund that could also be used for these purposes.

“We have let so many of these kinds of capital improvements go for good reasons over the past six to eight years, and we’ve done that conservatively to get ourselves into a position financially that we could address them when the time came,” Lorey said. “Our facilities are a source of pride for our community and a source of pride for the students and staff that are there. In my opinion, we have a responsibility to maintain those in a way that continues to make them a source of pride.”

Several board members worried it will take several more years for the corporation to recoup the saved money to pay for more inevitably large expenses to come. Stenftenagel explained that is the reason why he recommended repairs to the carpet and walls instead of more expensive projects like installing new digital controls for heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.

Finally, the board and administrators agreed to move forward with the improvements but also to soon consider reopening discussions about the future of the elementary schools.

“It’s not that we don’t have the money set aside or available in different funds in different ways,” Habig said. “It’s that we have to get going on some of these decisions so that we’re not just pouring money into something we’re not going to be using.”

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