Voters to decide future of school facilities

In most presidential election years, Indiana’s May primary is viewed by many as a mere formality. In 2012, only 16-percent of registered voters turned out to the polls in St. Joseph County for the primary.

Regardless of the nomination process for presidential candidates, it will be critical for New Prairie community voters to turn out to the polls to answer a question that will impact the future of its school corporation.

This past January, the New Prairie United School Corporation School Board of Trustees unanimously passed a resolution to ask the community to approve a building renovation and school safety project. The project is estimated to cost no more than $42 million and is to be paid over a 16-year repayment plan.

Under Indiana law, school districts are required to ask voters for approval for any construction project that will exceed $10 million. The estimated tax increase for the average homeowner in the community is around $10 per month. The referendum will appear on the ballot during the May 3 primary election.

21st Century High School Every school building in the district will receive infrastructure and safety improvements. However, the majority of the work will be focused on renovating New Prairie High School. School officials say the high school, which was built in 1968, is in need of significant upgrades to its mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems. For example, the proposal calls for energy efficient boilers to replace the existing system. Two of the three current boilers are in need of repair, one of which is not functional.

According to NPUSC Superintendent Dr. Paul White, upgrading these infrastructure systems to become more energy efficient would save the district money in the long-term.

“Our conservative estimate is a yearly savings between $150,000 and $175,000,” White said.

The corporation, particularly through its 1:1 technology initiative, has been a leader in moving forward in the 21st Century. A major theme of the proposal is to help the facilities catch up to the district’s “culture of excellence.” As a result, the plans call for a renovated library and also a new “Learning Commons,” between the library and cafeteria which would provide technological support and device charging areas.

If passed, the referendum project would allow for a reconfiguration of the entire high school for more collaboration within vocational and academic program areas. The east wing would be dedicated to helping students develop marketable skills, while the west wing would prepare students for college.

While the infrastructure concerns can be attributed to the age of the facility, the growth of the high school and expansion of the building has contributed to other needs for improvement. For example, the current cafeteria would be expanded to accommodate the growing number of students.

After the completion of the new middle school building in 2008, the high school absorbed the old junior high as its east wing. Originally constructed to be two separate schools, the sprawl of the annexed structure has its share of safety and supervision concerns.

For example, the walk from the high school office to the east wing is approximately 0.4 miles. Not only is it a long distance for administrators to respond to issues on the other end of the building, but the hallways that connect the two wings are not wide enough to accommodate the student traffic during the school day. The administration has been forced to implement one-way hallways during school hours to alleviate the congestion.

Major Public Use Areas One of the centerpieces of the project is to add a “Hall of Excellence” connecting the east and west wings. The new corridor will improve student movement throughout the school and provide a showcase area for the school’s achievements. The main offices for the high school administration would be relocated along the new hallway, providing a more central location. It would also provide an opportunity to create a secure main entrance to the building.

The Hall of Excellence would be the welcoming area for the portion of the high school that sees the most public use. Included in that section of the school is a proposed new 1,200-seat auditorium, which would double the seating capacity of the current one (595). The corporation weighed their options, including the renovation of the existing auditorium, but ultimately decided a new, larger space is necessary for the school’s enrollment, which could surpass 1,000 next year.

Under the proposal, the old auditorium will be reconfigured into classrooms and storage space for performing arts programming, like band and choir.

“Those programs are long overdue for new spaces considering all their success, particularly in the last five to seven years,” White said.

Athletic Facilities Moving into athletic facilities, the high school pool is currently losing 18,000 gallons of water per day. Used not only for the swimming teams’ competitions, the pool hosts various community activities as well. Although reconstructing the pool tank is listed as part of referendum project, this particular issue will be dealt with in the spring, regardless of the vote, using the corporation’s rainy day fund. However, White anticipates the corporation would be able to reimburse itself for the new pool tank should the referendum pass. The proposal also includes renovations to the spectator area of the natatorium.

At Amzie Miller Field, home and visiting football teams would have new indoor meeting rooms for pregame and halftime. For several years, the Cougars have met in the maintenance barn at the southwest corner of the stadium, while visiting teams had to choose between returning to the locker room at the school or finding a space on the practice field to huddle at halftime. The new meeting rooms would be attached to the current concession stand and restroom building and would not be full locker room facilities.

Despite consideration, an artificial turf football field is not being proposed as part of the referendum project. White cites this as one of the few areas in which the corporation had received negative feedback from the public.

Traffic Circulation Improving traffic safety at the high school campus is a major component of the project. The proposal calls for rerouting the school busses behind the school through a new bus parking lot on the northeast side of the building. The redesign would separate the bus traffic from the student drivers and mitigate the issue of students racing to beat the busses out of the parking lot.

“We have been fortunate to have no major incidents in the past,” White said regarding the end of the day traffic flow.

Middle School Improvements Despite being less than a decade old, the middle school also has a couple of targeted improvements. Most notably, a “Gymatorium” addition for both athletics and fine arts. This idea came from community input, which noted the need for more space for extra-curricular activities at the middle school. Facility experts have advised that classrooms could be included in the addition without increasing the overall cost.

Elementary Safety Projects At the three elementary schools, various infrastructure projects are planned with a continued focus on energy efficiency throughout the district.

Additionally, student safety is a priority. Neither Olive Township nor Prairie View, which are identical in design, currently have secure entryways. The proposal calls for an addition to the main entrance of both schools to maximize security.

All three schools would receive restroom improvements, while Rolling Prairie would also have an expanded cafeteria.

Respecting Taxpayers The school board has committed to a design-build project delivery system, which allows more flexibility throughout the entire process. In this process, architectural specialists are able to evaluate the district’s needs and find the most cost-effective and least disruptive ways to meet the objectives of the project.

For example, the proposal calls for site circulation improvements for bus and car traffic flow at Olive Township. With the design-build method, the corporation may be able to avoid their original plans of relocating part of the playground and basketball courts on the south side of the school and may be able to find a solution on the east side of the building instead.

For White and the school board, finding ways to be cost-effective and respecting the taxpayers is a major concern. Community input on the needs of the district has been a key aspect of the process from the start, as the corporation held multiple community forums in the fall before passing their final resolution.

Additionally, the corporation recently decided to add two more public information meetings to answer questions regarding the project.The first will be held on April 19 at the Kankakee Township Fire Station in Rolling Prairie. The second will be at the New Carlisle Public Library on April 25.

“We have tried to lay out the facts in a straightforward manner and allow people to make their own informed decision.” White said.

What Happens on Election Day On May 3, voters will be asked the following question:

“Shall the New Prairie United School Corporation issue bonds or enter into a lease to finance the comprehensive construction, renovation, and improvements to various School Corporation facilities, including the equipping thereof, which is estimated to cost not more than $42,000,000 and is estimated to increase the property tax rate for debt service by $0.6155 per $100 of assessed valuation?”

Understanding the ballot question will be vital for voters.

“The critical part to know about the ballot question is that we are already paying a significant portion of that figure,” White said.

In St. Joseph County, taxpayers pay $0.4469 per $100 of assessed valuation. In La Porte County, the current rate is slightly lower at $0.4312.

Should voters approve the project, a bid process would begin in the spring with construction work following in the fall. White expects the project to take around two years, as the schedule will be managed to minimize disruptions to the students during the school year.

If the referendum is voted down, White anticipates the needs would continue to grow. He notes that the corporation prefers to avoid exhausting the rainy day fund.

“We would be able to take care of a few of the core things,” he said, noting things like replacing the boilers in the high school.

“But it would remain status quo for a lot of the other projects,” he continued.

By law, the corporation would have to wait two years before asking the community again for funding through a referendum.

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