ASHLAND – An instant straw poll conducted during Monday night’s community engagement meeting indicates there is strong support for a bond issue to build new facilities at Ashland-Greenwood Public Schools.

School administrators and representatives of the DLR Group updated a group made up of school district patrons, local business owners, parents and school staff members on the district’s growth and facility needs.

The district began the community engagement process in late 2018 by inviting about 35 people to a meeting to hear proposals for expansion. Another meeting was held last year, but the process slowed as the school district ran into opposition to their proposal to acquire the El Rancho trailer court property.

This year, things were back on track as the district began looking at property to the north of the middle school/high school. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. As the district faced the challenge of finding ways to educate students while the school facilities were shut down for nearly four months, the plans were shelved, according to Superintendent Jason Libal.

“COVID put a rope in front of us,” he said.

Monday night’s meeting is kick starting the process again.

“It’s important to get back together to continue the game plan for the future,” Libal said.

Libal told the group that enrollment has grown by nearly 200 students in the past five years, and new housing developments in the community will mean even more growth.

This growth is impacting programming, according to the administrations.

Elementary Principal Teresa Bray said the district would like to expand its pre-kindergarten program, which has two sessions now and a waiting list of about 20 children. But there is no room.

The elementary has four sections of each grade in kindergarten through fifth grade, with the exception of the fourth grade, Bray said. The class sizes in the “special” subjects like physical education, music and art, are larger now, she added.

“They truly are having an impact on learning,” she said.

To find space, the district “got creative” and divided the former computer lab up to create two academic intervention classrooms, Bray said.

Secondary Principal Brad Jacobsen said setting the class schedule for middle school and high school is difficult enough, but when there is an issue with available space, it is even more of a challenge. They have created classrooms in the past few years by eliminating the middle school commons area and moving lockers. But they also added staff in recent years to meet demands, which means they have to find room for another teacher.

The district takes advantage of long distance learning opportunities as a way to provide dual credit classes for high school students. Jacobsen said up to 20% of the classes are taught by persons not employed by the district.

Jacobsen said he has been forced to cut some programming because of limited space, including middle school exploratory classes in ag, industrial technology and business.

Libal said if the school district does not build new facilities to deal with the growth, the next step would be to bring in portable classrooms.

Vanessa Schutte said the district has grown since last year, and these factors were taken into consideration as the DLR Group updated the proposed plan for expansion.

Schutte said they would like to see the district build a new building for pre-k to second grade that is sized to meet future needs, rather than planning for additions down the road. The existing elementary school would house third to fifth grades.

“We planned for 20 years out when we did all our numbers,” she said.

A new building would be constructed near the high school that would initially be used for the middle school. It would become the high school in 10 to 15 years, Schutte said. It would have a competition gym where high school games would be played, and the core facilities like the cafeteria and media center would be sized for when it becomes the high school. A performance auditorium is also proposed to be attached to the new middle school.

DLR Group’s Pat Phelan said the cost for the project is determined by the size of the project, the building component qualities and the construction market. Using these factors, they estimate the cost to build a new elementary school at $17.4 million, and it would take $30.9 million to construct the new middle school. The performance auditorium would cost another $7.6 million.

The total price tag of $59.9 million is “a big number,” Phelan said.

The district’s property valuation has skyrocketed in the past 10 years, increasing from $470 million in 2010 to a projected $971 million this year. That is about 10% average growth every year, Phelan said. DLR Group is estimating only a 2% growth when evaluating financing options, he added.

Phelan proposed the school district put a bond issue to a vote of the people that would wrap the new bond levy around the existing 2009 school bond levy, which is 4 cents per $100 of valuation. The district has a 12 cent special building fund levy that has created a pool of about $3 million to be used for the new facilities.

The new bond levy would be 33 cents, but it eliminates the old bond levy and the special building fund levy, creating a net levy of 17 cents for the entire $59.9 million project, Phelan said.

After the presentation, the patrons were asked to participate in a straw poll to determine if there is support for the proposed plans and a bond issue. No teachers or staff took part in the straw poll.

The results were as follows:

- 91% were in favor of building a freestanding pre-k-second grade elementary school.

- 91% were in favor of building a freestanding middle school that would become the high school later on.

- 68% were in favor of building a performing arts center.

- 67% were in favor of building all three phases at the same time.

- 77% support the 33 cent levy, which will be a net 17 cent levy after the current bond and special building levies are eliminated.

- 86% support seeking a bond issue in the fall.

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