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New SMS, performing arts center, and what else?

Estimates still need tweaking as district prepares for bond issue
Solon school board member Tim Brown talks to architects John Darveau and Craig Schwerdtfeger during an April 7 work session held to continue work on a potential September bond election. (photo by Doug Lindner)

SOLON– It’s safe to say the Solon Community School District (SCSD) is approaching the starting gate in the race toward a possible September bond issue.
With a $25 million spending target and conceptual plans for a new performing arts center and middle school in hand, the members of the Solon school board met with architects last week to continue the groundwork for significant facilities projects.
During March, various elected officials and school staff toured auditoriums at Bettendorf, Clear Creek Amana and Cedar Rapids Prairie, and middle schools at Prairie and Waverly-Shell Rock, gathering information to help shape Solon’s vision.
At the Monday, April 7, board meeting, the district started the process of separating the wants and the needs. John Darveau and Craig Schwerdtfeger of Struxture Architects were present, along with most of the district’s facilities committee.
At present, Struxture is placing early cost estimates at just over the $25 million which the district has identified as a manageable debt. But that’s before the tweaking that will occur after the March tours.
The latest preliminary cost– $25.971 million– would cover the construction of an approximately 75,000 square foot, two-story middle school on the 11 acres recently purchased on Racine Avenue immediately west of the high school ($13.1 million); an almost-30,000 square foot auditorium attached to the east side of the high school ($6.042 million); and a second gymnasium, weight room and some added classroom space for the high school ($2.754 million).
But the price opinion on the performing arts center (which includes a renovated special education space and new art rooms) is likely to go up, and some of the amenities, like the second gym and the weight room, may have to go to the wayside as the district gets farther along in the process.
That process will include the passage of language for a ballot initiative and the formation of a bond committee, as well as a whole laundry list of other items. Those present at Monday night’s work session discussed many of them, from the projected increases in enrollment and overall taxable valuation to a long term facility plan that incorporates the current middle school for future use.
Although the district is planning to build a 5-8 middle school, Superintendent Sam Miller said has noted several times the district is not far from needing a fourth attendance center, because open enrollment is continuing to drive growth in the district.
“We’ve been at 1,286 forever,” he said of the district’s resident enrollment, which has remained stagnant, and may even decrease with the large senior class of 2014.
Eventually, the new middle school would likely house grades six through eight, with Lakeview and another facility splitting the elementary grades.
And while that’s still 5-15 years in the future, board members want to be able to explain the vision to the public before the bond issue is decided in September.
First up, however, will be determining the priorities for the auditorium’s design.
After the tours in March, board member Rick Jedlicka said there was basic consensus on the size (somewhere between 700 and 1,000) of an auditorium, and those on the tour took something away from each site.
“It was just very nice to be able to go and physically look at the differences,” he said after the board meeting. “There are pieces from each we would like to incorporate.”
Putting the pieces together will probably fall to the district’s building and grounds committee, Jedlicka and board member Dan Coons. Those two will sift through the information gained on the tours and bring it back to the full board.
“As you look at through list, there are things that are going to require research, and it’s more efficient to have two people go through it (rather than the full board),” said board member Tim Brown.
The auditorium and the middle school are the two big goals of the plan, with a high school weight room, second gym and added classrooms seen as possible separate alternate bids. According to Miller and High School Principal Nathan Wear, the weight room would be the greatest need among the alternates.
But how much the district can build won’t be known until the bids come in.
“We have an idea of what we think is going to fit within our budget,” Brown said. “The key things– the middle school and the auditorium– that’s a package.” The details and the amenities may change, he said, but not before the vote in September. “Things could change as we go through the process,” he said. “Classrooms could move.”
The district hopes to have the basic groundwork completed by the time the ballot language is identified and the bond committee is formed, likely sometime in May.
“If we’re looking at a September vote, we’re going to have to kick off the campaign for the vote before Memorial Day,” Brown said. “We’re looking at six weeks to have things ready to kick off.”
Board President Dick Schwab indicated Beef Days would be an ideal forum to share information with the public.
The board is expected to have continued discussions on how involved to be in the months leading up to the vote.
“How much outreach do you do to get people who have a vested interest in supporting this, to show up at the polls the day of the election?” Brown asked. “You want to educate them about what we’re doing and explain to them why it matters.”
Key to that explanation will be the impact of property owners.
Building, Grounds and Transportation Director Mike Kasparek suggested it would be important to talk to older residents who will have concerns about their tax bills.
Board member Dean Martin agreed, noting there are several questions the board will need to be ready to answer.
“Is it going to raise my taxes?” Martin said. “We have to be careful what we say with that.”
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 the district’s debt service levy, although the current level would be extended another 20 years.
But that doesn’t mean that future boards won’t have to increase taxes in other areas, Martin pointed out.
The other question, he said, will be about the future of the existing middle school, which at this time is undecided. Parts of the structure could potentially be incorporated into the district’s fourth attendance center.
“We need to have a consistent answer to that,” Martin said.
Schwab said it would be a good idea to identify as many questions from the public as possible and prepare a set of corresponding answers. “Then, we’re speaking with one voice,” Schwab said.