A decade ago, building a new school was a simpler process.
Clark-Pleasant Middle School, for example, opened in 2011 to make room for up to 1,600 students. The school board was used to seeing 400 to 500 new students enrolling each year when they approved the $42 million building, and officials knew if more space was needed they would have to raise taxes again to pay for new schools or to renovate and expand existing ones.
But a lot has changed since then. Clark-Pleasant is still growing and is expecting another 1,200 students over the next 10 years, which is a 19 percent increase over the roughly 6,200 students now enrolled in the school district. But taxpayers now decide whether they’ll pay for any elementary school construction projects that cost more than $10 million or high school projects that cost more than $20 million.
Property tax caps also limit the amount of money Clark-Pleasant collects to pay its debts, which means the school district has had to make up the difference by putting off building maintenance, and cutting transportation and other costs in order to afford loan payments.
Superintendent Patrick Spray knows tax caps are here to stay and wants to find new ways to pay for upcoming construction projects without adding to Clark-Pleasant’s debt.
“It’s a different way of thinking in school finance than we’ve had to before,” Spray said.
Clark-Pleasant is still the fastest-growing school district in Johnson County and is still paying millions each year for past building projects, including the new middle school and renovations at the administration building, the high school and some of the elementary schools.
Spray said he wants to plan for future growth by inspecting all nine of Clark-Pleasant’s schools by the end of the year to see how close the schools are to running out of room for students. He also wants Clark-Pleasant to save more money that can be used for future construction costs and to pay off more debt.
The last time the school district inspected all of its buildings was in 2006, and since then the new middle school has opened and other schools have added and dropped programs, such as the special education preschool that was moved out of Sawmill Woods Elementary.
An updated review will help school officials see what building projects they’ll have to consider — if any — so they can be sure all of the new students they’re expecting have seats. School officials also could decide after the review whether to move any grade levels into other buildings, such as the middle school that now has room for 600 more students, Spray said.
Spray also wants the school district to start setting aside up to $500,000 each year in a construction fund. That money won’t be enough to pay for a new building, or for a new wing on any of the existing buildings. But if Clark-Pleasant needs to add or renovate a classroom, that savings can pay for the project, instead of the school district borrowing money and adding to its debt, Spray said.
School officials are looking for money anywhere they can, including allowing Verizon to build a cell tower on 4,900 square feet of space near Clark-Pleasant Middle School. Verizon will pay the school district $19,200 per year for the first five years of their contract, and after the fifth contract extension that amount will grow to more than $30,900 per year.
Rental agreements like that will allow the school district to put more money into the construction fund, and into the general fund that pays for employee salaries and insurance.
Schools receive money from the state that pays for employee salaries and benefits based on the number of students who attend their schools. Spray wants Clark-Pleasant to set aside 10 to 12 percent of what the school district spends each year out of its general fund, which is between $3.9 million and $4.6 million.
School districts try to set aside money but typically not that much. Center Grove schools, for example, tries to set aside
4 percent of what it spends from the general fund.
But Clark-Pleasant has been using general fund money to cover more expenses, such as technology costs, because property tax caps limit the amount of money the school district can collect to pay for technology, building upgrades and transportation. Saving extra money will ensure the school district always has enough to pay its expenses, especially if the cost of employees or an academic program rises suddenly, he said. In order to save $3.9 million to $4.6 million, school officials will have to continue to think carefully about whether they need to hire more teachers to replace any who resign or retire, Spray said.
Clark-Pleasant also has savings, or rainy day fund, that has helped pay for shortfalls from the property tax caps. Right now the school district has $4.5 million in savings, which came from cutting transportation spending and holding off on nonessential building repairs. Spray wants that fund to have about $5 million, and then wants to use that money to help eliminate some of the school district’s debt payments.
Spray and school officials are considering using about $3 million to help pay off the school district’s pension debt, which would allow the schools to spend money in other areas, such as buying new buses, Spray said. The remaining $2 million could be used for maintenance, transportation and other costs in 2016 and 2017, when Clark-Pleasant’s annual debt payments for building projects are expected to peak at more than $14 million.
“We feel we’ll still be able to use those funds for capital projects and maintenance to get us through that period,” Spray said.