MINONK — The Fieldcrest School District has scheduled an Oct. 14 public hearing on tentative plans to spend up to about $35 million on major upgrades to its high school in Minonk and middle school in Wenona. It will be at 6:30 p.m. at Fieldcrest Intermediate School in Toluca.
If the plans come to fruition, they would result in the district paying significantly more for the improvements than the $29 million figure in an unsuccessful Nov. 2018 referendum on building a new high school and nearly new middle school.
The hearing was triggered by a recent 5-0 School Board vote to authorize the issuance of up to $14.5 million in general obligation bonds to help pay for “altering, repairing and equipping” schools. That would supplement some $21 million in Health, Life Safety bonds that have previously been calculated as necessary to cover expenses involved in bringing the buildings up to safety standards.
“At this hearing, you just kind of open up the floor and get any kind of public comment,” Stephen Adams of bonding firm PMA Securities told the board at the recent meeting.
The hearing will fall midway through a 30-day petition window – Oct. 1 to Oct. 31 – in which citizens could force a “back-door referendum” on the GO bonds with signatures of 298 district residents, Adams said. That would represent 7.5% of the registered voters in the district’s four counties.
Plans call for both buildings to receive new windows, roofing, and fire protection systems, as well as extensive masonry, plumbing, mechanical, and electrical upgrades. Work at the middle school would also include demolishing a three-story section, while the high school project would also include a new ground-floor kitchen and cafeteria to replace the current areas in the basement.
“The middle school project is (estimated to cost) $17,277,540 and the high school project is (estimated at) $16,333,219, with a total of $33,610,759,” Superintendent Dr. Kari Rockwell said in a recent email.
Board members had initially adopted a measure in January anticipating the issuance of only $5 million in GO bonds to go along with the $21 million for HLS. But that has been increased “to cover items that were not included in the original HLS amendments, but must be addressed in order to correctly fix our building issues,” Rockwell explained.
“Our goal is to fully improve our buildings in order to provide a healthy and safe environment,” said the superintendent. “Our other goal is to move away from a deferred maintenance plan and begin forward thinking, preventative maintenance planning which will be accomplished with all HLS and renovation projects complete.”
The proposed bond totals, which exceed the cost estimate by nearly $2 million, would provide “a cushion” for rising costs, Adams said. While the amount can be lowered later, it cannot be raised once it’s been set, he said.
While the process provides for the possibility of a referendum on the GO bonds, none is required for the HLS bonds, Adams noted. Those funds would become available in December.
“At the end of the year, you’ll have approximately $21 million that you can use,” he told the board.
The 2018 referendum, which was the product of a 4-3 vote by a substantially different board, was rejected by about 70% of district voters. Had it passed, it would’ve added an estimated $390 to the annual tax on a $100,000 home.
No estimate of the taxpayer impact from the possible bond plan here was offered at the board meeting, as the firm was “still in the process of developing what the debt payments will look like,” Adams said. “We’ll structure it for the minimal impact.”
One factor that promises to make a big difference compared to 2018 is the new revenue that could be generated by three area wind farm projects in various stages of development, Rockwell said. Two are in Fieldcrest sections of Marshall County, while the other is in Woodford.
“If you look at the revenue from one wind farm (over its productive life), it’s almost exactly equal to the project amount,” Rockwell said at the meeting. “It’s possible there would be no impact to taxpayers.”
If the finances come together, the tentative plan is to begin construction in March, said project architect Angela Kalsto of BCA Architects Ltd. in Ottawa.
“Right now we’ve got a Jan. 18 bid date penciled in,” she told the board. “Both projects are moving smoothly in my office, and they’re progressing rapidly.”
Gary L. Smith can be reached at (800) 516-0389 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Glsmihx.