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Thursday, Feb. 11, 2010 06:35 am

Milton wants to pick low-hanging fruit

District can start other projects while waiting for Option B


Springfield Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Walter Milton.

Dr. Walter Milton calls it “low-hanging fruit” — a list of short-term projects that the Springfield School Board can tackle as it waits for answers on Option B and its funding.

The superintendent of Springfield Public Schools told school board members recently that Matheny-Withrow Elementary School, 1200 S. Pope Ave., and Enos Elementary School, 524 Elliott Ave., could be replaced on their current sites using health/life safety bonds. Milton also recommended using these bonds to replace a two-story section of Wanless Elementary School, 2120 E. Reservoir St., that was built in 1912.

Dave Smith, director of operations and maintenance for District 186, confirms that these three projects would qualify for the state revenue source — used by school districts to replace buildings when there are enough code violations to make rebuilding more cost-effective than renovating. He estimates that it would cost $4.8 million and $8.5 million to build Matheny-Withrow and Enos, respectively. Estimates on Wanless’ construction were not immediately available.

These projects are not replacing Option B, Milton says — they need to be completed in conjunction with the high school improvements. Since they’ll be funded by health/life safety bonds, he adds, they can be started without a sales or property tax increase.

 “We have to really start taking action, because that’s what people want,” Milton says. “Once we start taking action, people can see that we’re serious and that we’re forward-moving. To me, that’s good leadership.”

The Springfield School Board has already approved $80 million in health/life safety improvements, which included abating asbestos in the north end of Southeast High School and replacing the roof on the Edison section of Lanphier High School. Smith says that even though Option B calls for the renovation of the three high schools, he also plans to improve their heating, ventilating and air-conditioning units.

“We have to keep our buildings maintained,” Smith says. “I didn’t really have any other choice. We have kids in those buildings, and we want to create the best environment that we can.”

Milton’s “low-hanging fruit” have drawn mixed reactions from the Springfield School Board. Art Moore, the board president, says the district could eliminate a potential funding source for its future high school construction if it builds elementary schools with available health/life safety bonds.

Bill Looby agrees, saying that the board should focus on decisions that benefit all of the district’s students. Since students all attend the three public high schools, he continues, those projects should still receive top priority.

“We should do what’s necessary to make sure our kids are in a safe environment and an environment that’s conducive to learning,” he says, “but what I don’t want is for us to choose that as a replacement for the other.

“We’ve had two committees look over these high schools, we’ve had two sets of recommendations, we’ve spent money on consulting fees — I just think there are hard decisions that have to be made.”

Susan White, however, contends that the district needs a comprehensive improvement plan. If the board places a referendum on the ballot to spend $231 million on high schools, she says, then it wouldn’t be able to pay for projects that are needed in elementary and middle schools.

Nick Stoutamyer also agrees with Milton’s plan. He says that the board needs to prove to the community that it plans to handle all of the district’s aging facilities.

“I think that the elementary school construction would also show the community that we’re not just tunnel vision on high schools,” he says. “That other things can happen in this district that are going to bring positives to our youngest learners.”

The school district also needs to build five middle school gyms by 2013, when state law will require physical education for all middle-school students. The district currently offers waivers for P.E., because it doesn’t have enough gym space.

Smith estimates that the five gyms will cost $15 million. Three of the five could be funded through a lease-purchase option, he says, but the other two could be rolled into the future referendum for the countywide sales tax increase. 

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