PARMA, MI – Western School District voters heading to the polls on May 3 will decide the fate of a proposed bond that would consolidate the district’s three elementary schools into one centralized building.
If approved, the school district would borrow $46 million toward building a new 140,000-square-foot Western Elementary School on 35 acres the district owns east of middle and high schools off Dearing Road.
From background on what a proposed new elementary building would look like. to how much it will cost voters, here are 10 things to know about the proposed bond.
Why is the focus of bond spending primarily on elementary buildings?
Western School District’s three elementary schools were each built more than 60 years ago, with Warner Elementary completed in 1951, Parma Elementary in 1953 and Bean Elementary in 1960.
Each building hasn’t undergone any sort of significant renovation since 1996.
With the district focusing most of its construction efforts from its $24.5-million 2012 capital bond on its middle and high schools on such improvements as a new high school gym and five high school classrooms, Superintendent Mike Smajda said it made sense to address how the district houses its younger students.
“We want to build a facility that is able to house every grade level as a cohort,” Smajda said. “When it comes to a teaching perspective, we can team teach, we can share resources, we can do more collaboration, so it really has a lot of positives when it comes to the educational side.
“But we also think by having it close to the high school and middle school, it’s going to be much more convenient for our parents when it comes to dropping kids off and picking kids up and and basically tracking kids.”
What would the bond pay for?
Although there are no schematic designs for the project yet, the new K-5 elementary building would include flexible, grade-specific learning spaces; separate bus drop-offs; physical education fields and playgrounds and a security system and camera/buzzer system.
“We believe it’s going to be more energy efficient, we believe it’s going to improve efficiencies of our operations and we believe it’s going to be good for instruction and student learning and our community,” Smajda said.
While the majority of the bond funds would be used toward the new elementary campus, additional bond funds could go toward new doors and windows at the middle and high schools, in addition to HVAC unit upgrades, plumbing and parking lot repairs.
Breaking down the costs
With all costs taken into consideration, a new elementary school would cost the district an estimated $44.6 million. The rest of the bond funds would include $1.1 million for demolition of the remaining elementary school buildings and $152,141 each for the middle and high school improvements.
The material costs for constructing the new elementary would be about $36.9 million, with an additional 15% toward architect and construction management and other costs.
Smadja said the intention of including improvements for the middle and high schools in the ballot language would allow Western to divert any extra funds from construction of the elementary, should construction come in under budget.
“If we never referenced the middle school and high school, and if we’re done with the elementary project and we have money left over, we can only use it on that elementary project,” he said.
A matter of space
Western School District currently is comprised of six school buildings across approximately 75 square miles, with the district enrolling more than 2,700 students.
Functional capacity inside the elementary buildings is 325 and is currently exceeded at Bean (407), Parma (375) and Warner (394).
What would happen to the three current elementary schools?
If approved, each of the three current elementary school buildings would be demolished. Demolition of the buildings would cost an estimated $1.1 million, according to district figures.
What would a construction timeline look like?
While dates and project order could be revised based on several factors, including market conditions, product availability and the school calendar, the initial design process for the new elementary school would begin after passage of the bond and would take approximately eight months to complete.
Construction would start in 2023, with a projected completion for fall 2025. Some small projects, like upgrades at the middle and high school, could begin before the end of 2022.
How is this a “zero-millage rate increase”?
The bond is a zero-millage rate increase, meaning if approved, the district would continue to collect the 7 mills it currently is collecting without an increase to taxpayers, Smajda said.
By extending the 7 mils the district is collecting from the School Bond Loan Program, Western would maintain the same debt over the next 30 years, while also allowing it to borrow the $46 million now to pay for the elementary complex, Smajda said.
“Right now, if we do nothing, in the next four to five years, we will see a significant decrease in our debt millage rate,” Smajda said. “So in anticipation of that rolling off, we’re saying ‘let’s extend that’ (rate). We’re in a good position where we’re saying, ‘We don’t want to raise the tax rate.’ We just want to maintain what we already are assessing.”
The bonds would be issued over 30 years, assuming a taxable value growth rate of 3%, and bond interest rate of 3.50%
How much would it cost taxpayers to retire the bond debt of the millage?
If voters approve the bond proposal, it is projected that the annual debt millage required to repay the district’s outstanding and proposed bonds will remain at or below the current bond millage rate of 7 mills.
The estimated simple average annual millage anticipated to be required to retire this bond debt is 3.50 mills, or $3.50 on each $1,000 of taxable valuation.
New building vs. renovations
The district estimated significant renovations needed to update the current elementary buildings would cost around $21.2 million.
When you’re dealing with older buildings, it limits what types of renovations you’re able to do, outside of constructing a completely new building, Smajda said.
“That does not change the outer shell of the building, it does not change the inner workings of the building,” he said. “For example, we have narrow hallways and the fact that we have support staff working in closets that have been converted to mini offices. We’re not expanding anything or creating better workspaces.”
Central campus vs. neighborhood schools
Western School District doesn’t have “neighborhood schools,” Smajda claims, but instead “schools in neighborhoods.”
“Our kids are no longer centrally located around each of our three elementaries,” he said. “They’re literally spread out over the entire district and into Jackson County.”
For example, out of 400 students attending one elementary, an estimated 30 students walk to school each day, Smajda said.
Traffic is also a major issue issue surrounding the elementary buildings, Smajda said, and expansion of the current buildings would be restrictive in helping the district address issues like traffic flow or improve operational efficiency in having shorter and direct bus runs.
“One of the things that we know we have an issue with at are three elementary buildings is access to the building – they’re very congested,” he said. “One of the buildings has literally one way in and out on a two-lane road. The other buildings have one access point, for lack of a better word.
“Traffic is backed up literally three to four blocks. So, in order to solve that, which has not even factored into these costs, we would have to acquire additional property around those buildings, either demolish or relocate the homes on those lots and then build roads into it.”
Smajda added Western would not have enough money available to bond for building three separate elementary buildings with a zero millage rate increase, like it would with one centralized elementary building.
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