Crittenden Co. board approves new district facilities plan that focuses first on construction of new high school and later a new middle school

Crittenden Press, Marion, Dec. 1, 2016

New facilities plan gets initial approval from board of ed

An ambitious blueprint for future school construction in Crittenden County gained initial approval last week from the board of education and awaits the final green light following a public forum later this month to review the plan.

The District Facilities Plan that came before board members at the Nov. 22 meeting includes long-range proposals for virtually every building in the school system, but its primary objective is to create a new home for both middle and high school students. The $31.2 million overall plan was crafted by a local 12-member panel appointed every four years to look at the future of bricks and mortar in the school district.

“When you really begin to look at the condition our facilities are in, it brings a level of concern,” said board member and Local Planning Committee chair Pam Collins.

Under the proposal, a new high school would be built as a wing extending from Rocket Arena, freeing up the current high school to house middle-schoolers and eliminating the 67-year-old building now housing grades 6-7. The 1949 portion of CCMS would be razed, but the eight-grade wing would be converted into the central office. The plan also calls for a new cafeteria at the elementary school, eventual construction of a new middle school connected to Rocket Arena, a new middle and a high school cafeteria and the relocation and upgrade of the football field to include an oval competition track.

Most of the projects pitched in the facilities plan are in the distant future, but the board is anxious to address overcrowding and inadequacies at the aging middle school. Moving ahead with the plan to shift middle and high school students before 2020, though, would require additional funding from taxpayers in the form of a 5-cent bump in the real estate levy.

Currently, the school district has just shy of $5 million in bonding potential, far short of what would be needed to build a new high school to get the facilities plan moving.

“Quite honestly, that won’t give us a good start,” Collins said.

Tacking a so-called second nickel onto tax rate dedicated to construction – 5 cents of the current level is already earmarked for school building – would generate an additional $7 million in local and matching state funds. That would be enough to complete the first phase of the plan.

All board members present – Phyllis Orr has been unable to attend recent meetings due to health reasons – appear to like the direction of the proposal and want to move forward with exploring the community’s interest in investing in new construction. None, however, are ready to commit to a tax increase.

“It’s not a board decision; it’s a community decision,” said board member Bill Asbridge.

While all meetings of the Local Planning Committee and all board discussions on the facilities plan have been open to the public, a final forum to explain the plan and hear comments is slated for 5:35 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 15. After that hearing, the board is anticipated to give final approval to the recommended construction plan, though acceptance does not commit the school district to any of the building projects or increased revenue.

Board members have been guarded about suggesting the necessary tax increase to start construction and a decision on the matter is still several months away. But Superintendent Vince Clark, a non-voting member of the facilities planning committee, said weighing the community’s educational needs against its willingness to finance suggested projects has been paramount.

“This has been a very thoughtful process,” he said.

After months of consideration, board Chairman Chris Cook said pouring money into the middle school to bring it up to state standards, particularly in terms of classroom size, is simply not feasible.

“When we began, I was probably the strongest advocate for renovating the middle school … but as we worked through the process … I became very much convinced and aware that renovating the school was not the best use of our resources,” he explained.

In other discussions at last week’s board meeting:

–Clark said attendance at two schools is above 95 percent. The middle school posted a 95.25 percent attendance rate through Nov. 2 while the elementary school came in at 96.54 percent. The high school was not far behind, though, at 94.14 percent. “Those are some of the best numbers we’ve had at the high school,” the superintendent said. Overall, the district recorded 95.59 percent attendance through the same time period.

–A fiber optics project to boost the internet signal at the elementary school is now complete, making download speeds 1,000 times faster. An underground line was run from the middle and high school campus to CCES in order to bypass interference problems with a signal beamed about a mile through trees, the atmosphere and other obstructions. Clark said speeds went from 10 MB to 10,000 MB. “With 700 students and about four dozen staff, they really needed it,” he said.

–Through the first three months of school, the number of meals served in the school district is up 13,000 over the same time period last year. The 2016-17 academic year is the first in the district to offer Community Eligibility Provision through the USDA. The program offers free breakfast and lunch to all 1,300-plus students in the district.

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