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School board looking at Sept. bond vote

$25M buys a middle school, auditorium and a few other extras

By Doug Lindner
Solon Economist

SOLON– It looks more and more like the Solon Community School District (SCSD) will put a bond issue before voters in the district in September.
The rough outline includes an auditorium addition at the high school, a new middle school and a few other add-ons at a cost of somewhere between $23 to $25 million.
And while it’s still all conceptual, the discussions are ongoing.
At a work session Monday, Jan. 27, the district’s school board members continued to explore the possibilities, albeit without representatives from the company that completed a recent facilities analysis.
Board members had been expected to meet with staff from the Waterloo architectural firm, Struxture, but pending weather prevented an appearance.
Instead, the SCSD board members explored the possibilities with Superintendent Sam Miller.
“I don’t fully grasp what we can afford,” noted board member Dan Coons. Coons listed off the two major projects the district has discussed as facility projects in the near future– an auditorium at the high school, a middle school
“I don’t know where we’re going to be financially after those two things,” Coons noted. “Can we get those two things done on one bond?”
According to Miller, on one will know until the bids come in.
Five years ago, he said, construction bids were coming in at 25 percent below engineering estimates. The University of Iowa and other school districts are expected to have major facility improvements soon, he said. “I don’t know,” Miller said in response to Coons.
Miller said $23 to $25 million is what he’s hearing– both from architects giving guesstimates on the two SCSD priorities, and from the district’s bonding counsel regarding available debt capacity.
“I don’t think you want to exceed that amount,” Miller said.
But during a recent superintendent’s advisory committee meeting, he said, those in attendance supported doing both major projects at once to take advantage of interest rates and combined construction costs.
“Did they talk at all about the probability of a bond issue passing?” asked board president Dick Schwab.
That particular group felt the projects would be well received by the community, Miller said,
And part of that, Schwab said, will likely be the size of the auditorium.
“If I’m getting any input at all on that,” Schwab said, “it’s that this is an auditorium for 20-25 years, don’t make it too small.”
But what is too small, board member Tim Brown asked. The original capacity considered by the district would have made Solon’s new auditorium the largest in the state for a high school, he noted. “Having an auditorium that’s never full is also not good, but the trade-off is you can’t go back and rebuild it once it’s built,” Brown said.
“That will be a big decision we have to make,” Schwab said.
A recent professional development session was held at Clear Creek Amana’s (CCA) auditorium, Miller said. “They really are proud of their auditorium, it’s very nice,” he observed. “They felt they had really had made significant investments in the people that would be performing there.”
CCA’s auditorium has a capacity of 799, and Miller said staff he talked with felt that number met the district’s needs.
At some point in time, he added, when Solon is ready to do some “auditorium shopping,” CCA will be on the list.
Schwab said it was possible the SCSD could look at two options– one a capacity similar to CCA’s and another design with seating for 1,100– and let the bids held make the decision.
Even more forward thinking will be required for designing the middle school, because the Solon district will eventually need a fourth attendance center.
Schwab said the new middle school will likely be configured to serve fifth through eighth grades, mirroring the existing middle school.
But at some point, that configuration of grades will change as growth eventually prompts the need for a fourth center.
Solon’s going to have four attendance centers,” Miller said. “It’s just when.”
Unless enrollment goes crazy, he said, the district should have some time to make that decision, and if financing estimates hold true, there should be some Physical Plant and Equipment Levy (PPEL) funds, perhaps as much as $7 million, to utilize, whether for new construction or to remodel an existing building.
From a timing standpoint, Miller said, there are only four times in 2014 when the district would have been allowed to place a bond issue before voters– February, March, September and December.
Board members agreed the most practical date for a bond issue would be September, and since there is no scheduled school board election, the bond issue would require a special election.
One selling point for the bond issue will be the projected impact on the district’s overall tax rate, which is expected to be negligible.
The SCSD bond counsel, Piper Jaffray, has indicated that old debts will be retired as new debt is taken on, resulting in no net increases in property taxes, although the current level would be extended another 20 years.
If a September election is held, there would be three-to-four months of design required, with bids taken sometime in late winter, Miller said. If desired, he added, it would be possible to do design early with existing funds.
A spring groundbreaking would traditionally result in an opening date in the fall of the following year, he said.
In the end, it was decided informally to have board member Coons and Rick Jedlicka meet and develop an outline for steps which would need to be taken by the board leading up to a September bond issue.