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Over the top? The cost of area education construction


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Construction at Franklin Community High School is shown. FILE PHOTO
Construction at Franklin Community High School is shown. FILE PHOTO

Construction takes place at Clark-Pleasant Middle School. FILE PHOTO
Construction takes place at Clark-Pleasant Middle School. FILE PHOTO


When Clark-Pleasant and Franklin school officials were deciding whether to build new schools nearly a decade ago, one fact was clear: More students were coming.

In 2007, about 600 more students were attending Franklin schools than in 2003. At Clark-Pleasant, 400 to 500 new students were arriving every fall.

When school officials decided to build new schools for the new students, they had no way of knowing that a flood was coming and that the housing market was going to crash a year later. Then property tax caps were approved, which restricted the amount of money school districts can collect to repay their debts.

Since then, residents and local government officials have periodically commented on the size of the buildings and wondered if they were too fancy for students. The comments typically surface whenever school districts have to make cuts to keep up with debt payments or when they ask for money.

Franklin Superintendent David Clendening came to the school district in 2009, two years after the new high school opened. He sometimes hears from residents who comment sarcastically about how nice the buildings look. The new high school cost Franklin nearly $157 million, including interest payments.

Some members of the Franklin Redevelopment Commission, which approved spending $500,000 that will pay for laptops for all of the high school’s students, mentioned the school district’s debt when considering the purchase. They questioned whether the school district could purchase the laptops on its own if it hadn’t built such an expensive high school. Franklin also has had to reduce spending and cut teaching positions to pay all of its debt.

Earlier this year, Clark-Pleasant school officials asked Greenwood to consider sharing money from a tax-increment financing district to help pay for school buses or laptops. An attorney who works on behalf of Greenwood city government on certain projects brought up the size of the school buildings. Attorney Sam Hodson, who represents Greenwood Mayor Mark Myers on different issues, told the city council in February that Clark-Pleasant has built several expensive buildings, including the administration building, which he called one of the nicest buildings in Johnson County.

School officials at both Franklin and Clark-Pleasant have said they want to be responsible in spending tax dollars, especially when considering adding to buildings or building new ones.

But officials also want to be sure they have enough space so that class sizes don’t grow to more than 25 to 30 students. For example, class sizes have grown too big at Creekside, Union and Webb elementary schools in Franklin.

Officials also want to be sure that students have all of the resources they need to prepare for college and careers.

“We’re not going to apologize for great buildings,” Clendening said. “These buildings are going to stand up a lot longer than (the criticisms).”

Below is a look at the issues Clark-Pleasant and Franklin were facing when student enrollment was booming and how that affected their building plans.

Clark-Pleasant

Clark-Pleasant’s buildings aren’t filling up as fast as they were seven years ago, but the school district’s growth hasn’t stopped.

More than 100 new students have enrolled in Clark-Pleasant during each of the past two school years, and an enrollment projection by Indiana University East professor Susan Brudvig expects the school district will have about 1,200 more students during the next 10 years.

When Clark-Pleasant’s growth was at its peak in 2007, modular classrooms were being used outside Whiteland Community High School to make room for students. School officials wanted to build a school that wouldn’t run out of room in five years.

A task force of 30 to 40 community members and school officials spent a year reviewing which building options made the most sense. The group reviewed options, including building a second high school, and considered how staffing, utility and other costs would be affected before building what is now Clark-Pleasant Middle School. The building cost about $42.25 million, not including interest, and the school district has about $37.5 million left to pay off on that project, business director Steve Sonntag said.

“We were trying to handle the growth as it was coming to us the best we could,” Sonntag said.

Sam Hodson, the Greenwood attorney who commented on the school buildings, declined to elaborate on his comment for this story. Mayor Mark Myers, who said he has been inside Whiteland Community High School and the administration building’s board room, said that the board room was designed with a prestigious, rather than administrative, office look.

But Clark-Pleasant officials also didn’t know property tax caps would limit the amount of revenue they could collect when they decided to construct the buildings, Myers said.

“They were planning for the future, and nobody could have planned for what happened with the economy taking a huge downturn and then also the (state) legislature passing the tax caps,” Myers said.

The changes to the administration building, which happened during the 2005-06 school year, were part of a $16.7 million districtwide project, which included additions and renovations at Clark and Break-O-Day elementary schools, constructing the Operations Center and bus parking lot and purchasing land, Sonntag said.

About $3.7 million was spent on the administration building to bring the school district’s technology and other departments that were in separate buildings under one roof and to ensure everything in the building was handicap-accessible, Sonntag said.

The middle school, which has room for 1,600 students, has just more than 1,000 students, and a wing that is mostly unused. But the space isn’t expected to be empty for long.

School officials are working now to decide how to handle the growth expected over the next decade. No decisions have been made, but options include moving students from Clark-Pleasant Intermediate, which is getting close to its capacity, to the middle school.

Most of the school district’s growth is expected to happen at the middle and high schools, which have room for several hundred more students. School officials also plan to conduct a long-term building capacity study before the end of the year to see if additional building projects are necessary, Sonntag said.

Franklin

Franklin started considering building projects, such as renovating Franklin Community Middle School and building the new high school, nearly 10 years ago.

At the time, the school district had about 1,200 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in a building designed for 1,000 students. The school was so crowded that math students who needed extra help met with tutors in band storage rooms.

At that point, between 50 and 100 new students arrived at Franklin schools every year, which is why the school district decided to renovate the former high school into the current middle school and build the new high school.

Combined, both projects cost more than $200 million in total payback, once interest payments were calculated. But at that point, the school district had every reason to expect more students would continue to enroll, executive director of finance Jeff Mercer said.

Then a historic flood hit. Two hundred students left and never returned. The housing market crash followed immediately, and since then no new subdivisions have been started in the city. The number of students attending Franklin schools has either held steady or fallen each school year for the past six years.

Schools receive money to pay for staff and utilities based on the number of students attending, and fewer students means Franklin has less money to pay for teachers.

Property tax caps also limit the amount of money Franklin can collect to pay off debts, but state law also requires school districts to keep up with their debt payments.

Right now, Franklin has to cut about $3.5 million in spending each year for at least the next decade to ensure it can make all of its payments. This year the school district’s debt payment is about $14.5 million, but that amount will fluctuate over the next 10 years.

Last year the school district cut 18 teaching positions to keep costs down. On Monday, Clendening announced there would be no new staffing cuts next school year.

The new high school isn’t full and has room for about 350 more students, but the building also has enough classroom space so that Franklin can handle any growth in future years. The high school also has labs and other resources that are preparing students for life after graduation, Mercer said.

“I think (the middle school and the high school) are very functional,” Mercer said. “They have the capability to take on future growth. They provide our kids with all that they need to be equipped academically.”

Franklin

Here’s a look at what four of Franklin Community Schools’ building projects cost and how much must be repaid:

Northwood Elementary, Creekside Elementary and Transportation renovations

Total cost, including interest    

$28,232,615

Remaining balance, including interest

$4,730,000

When the loan will be paid off

2015

Custer Baker

Intermediate renovations

Total cost, including interest    

$28,851,818

Remaining balance, including interest

$18,483,000    

When the loan will be paid off

2022

Franklin Community Middle School

Total cost, including interest    

$52,712,821

Remaining balance, including interest    

$37,967,500    

When the loan will be paid off

2029

Franklin Community High School, opened in 2007

Total cost, including interest    

$156,944,844

Remaining balance, including interest    

$117,381,000    

When the loan will be paid off

2026

Clark-Pleasant

Here are the initial costs and remaining balances for two sets of building projects at Clark-Pleasant Community Schools:

Clark-Pleasant Middle School

Total amount (principal only)

$42,250,000

Remaining amount (principal only)

$37,530,000    

Initial date for the projects

2009

Project for the administration building, additions and renovations at Clark Elementary and Break-O-Day Elementary, constructing the operations center and bus parking lot and land purchases

Total amount (principal only)

$16.7 million

Remaining amount (principal only)    

$11.6 million

Initial date for the projects

2005-2006

Removing portable classrooms from Whiteland Community High School, repairing the high school parking lot and adding geothermal wells to the freshman center

Total amount (principal only)

$6 million    

Remaining amount (principal only)    

About $5 million

Initial date for the projects    

2009

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