New school on the horizon?

Published 10:33 am Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Austin residents could have a new school soon.

Austin Public School board members will discuss later this month at a special session a proposal to curb increasing enrollment issues by adding a new school. The proposal submitted to the board Monday would include a new school for fifth- and sixth-graders and additional classrooms and renovations made to Woodson Kindergarten Center.

The proposal was made by a facilities task force, comprised of community members and district officials. The task force began meeting in January to discuss a 2009 demographics report which states the district would grow by almost 500 students by 2014. A facility usage study done last year revealed seven out of eight school buildings were either at or over capacity for the current school year.

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The school board will hear presentations on the plan and presentations on potential building sites for a new school.

The task force also recommended district officials analyze how a new school would affect the district’s budget, and recommended any proposal the board adopts to be less than $30 million. Mark Stotts, district finance and operations director, said district officials would put together a plan between $25 and $30 million if board members agreed to the proposal. If board members decide to pursue a new school, a bond referendum would take place in November.

A $25 to $30 million bond referendum wouldn’t have a severe property tax increase, despite the costs involved. Bonds that went to Austin High School restoration costs are set to expire this year, which Stotts said amounts to about $20 million. In other words, a plan that would cost $20 million would make property taxes stay the same. District officials did a rough cost estimate of the proposal last month, which came to about $34 million. Taking the expiring bonds into account, Stotts said a $34 million plan would increase taxes on a $125,000 home by about $100, although this amount differs based on home value.

The coming surge

Austin’s increasing enrollment hasn’t been a secret, as the district has increased in size since 2002. A 2009 demographic report shows that, based on Mower County birth records and the district’s high student retention rate, 400 to 500 more students will be going through Austin schools five years from now, with more projected student increases in the future. A recent facility usage report showed every school except for Austin High School at or over capacity, with some straining to fit students this year.

The incoming space issues aren’t due to new families moving into the area but rather from babies already born in Mower County to families than have lived here for some time.

“These are kids we know we’re getting,” Stotts said.

Projections become less stable five years out, since it’s hard to predict how many students will enter kindergarten that haven’t been born yet. Based on current trends, about 800 to 1,000 more students could attend Austin in 10 years.

If nothing is done, the district would have serious space concerns. District classrooms increased from 71 classrooms last year to 79 this year, using spaces that weren’t necessarily meant for students. In addition, class sizes have grown substantially during that time as well, with almost 30 kids to an elementary school class and even more students in an average Ellis Middle School classroom.

Woodson, already at capacity with 354 students this year, is projected to receive at least 390 students this fall, with even larger kindergarten classes on the way.

The only area not currently feeling student constraints is Austin High School, which has sufficient space to deal with an influx of students.

Planning ahead

To head off space and enrollment issues, Stotts organized a facilities task force in December, comprised of about 30 members, from all walks of life. Community leaders, business people, concerned residents and district officials met twice a month to learn about and come up with solutions to the incoming problems.

Stotts spoke to various community groups about the task force, seeking volunteers who came to the district wanting to help. Although Stotts had to make a phone call or two to make sure the group properly represented district residents, he said volunteers largely came on their own.

After two months of studying the proposal, task force members came up with 23 options to solve the enrollment issue before giving their solutions to school administrators, who condensed the ideas into four or five proposals. Task force members liked the current proposal, as it would give fifth graders more opportunities and help the educational transition from elementary to middle school. In a grades 5-6 school, fifth graders could have access to science labs and more opportunities for band and other music programs, something they don’t currently have.

What comes next

No formal action has been taken yet, although a decision could come as early as the May board meeting. If board members and residents approve of the proposal, there will be plenty of work to do shaping up costs, figuring out staffing, and finding the right site to build the school.

There’s plenty of opinion on where a new school could be built, from using the land near Ellis Middle School which the district already owns to buying and renovating property, including the KMart lot. District officials will wait and see what board members and the community ultimately decide.

“It’s been a long process up to this point and we’re only getting started,” Stotts said during Monday night’s board meeting.