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Taxpayers to decide fate of $33 million Indian River School capital project in January

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PHILADELPHIA — Indian River School District officials say a $33.2 million capital project that taxpayers will decide on in January will not cause school taxes to climb, thanks to a $10 million capital reserve fund that will cover the district’s out-of-pocket share.

Three informational meetings have been scheduled for the public to learn about the project before the Jan. 22 referendum. Project highlights include a multipurpose turf athletic facility to replace the high school football field, a solar electric facility, music rooms at the middle and high schools, 10 classrooms at Evans Mills Primary School and upgraded security measures and maintenance projects at all eight district schools.

The project will be funded primarily by state aid, Superintendent James Kettrick said. That aid is expected to be in the neighborhood of $25 million to $26 million, based on a 98 percent state aid ratio for classroom-related expenses; about $770,000 in state grant funding also will help fund the project. The remaining cost, in the range of $7 million to $8 million, would come from the $10 million balance in the district’s capital reserve fund.

“The Board of Education prudently planned for this day when they asked the voters to create a capital reserve to address expansion needs,” Mr. Kettrick said. “We have $10 million in this reserve fund to keep from shifting the financial load to local taxpayers.”

The district recently launched a nine-minute video on its website to highlight the capital project, available at http://wdt.me/tGarbe.

Business Manager James R. Koch said additional instruction space at the district’s middle and high schools is needed because enrollment numbers are expected to rise by more than 500 students over the next three years. The opening of multifamily townhouses at two sites off Route 11 near Fort Drum is expected to drive some of that growth. Enrollment also will rise because kindergarten classes are expected to be greater than the graduating classes.

Four-bedroom townhouses at Eagle Ridge Village completed by next spring are projected to bring 82 students to the district, Mr. Koch said. If its project is approved in the town of LeRay, about 240 multifamily townhouses will be constructed by California developer Fidelity Holdings Corp., north of Eagle Ridge Village. Construction would take place from 2014 to 2016, adding 192 students to the district by the 2016-17 school year.

By design, the capital project would be finished in 2016, when enrollment numbers peak.

Starting in the 2015-16 school year, the number of kindergarteners enrolled at the district is projected to jump by 30 students under the enrollment model, from 530 to 560 students. The district plans to enroll at least 560 kindergarten students every year over the next decade; in grades 1 through 4, enrollment is expected to be about seven students higher in each grade than it is this year starting in 2015-16.

“We expect to have a much larger number of kindergarteners (enrolling) than students dropping off,” Mr. Koch said. “We’re seeing more stability in the military housing market, and we expect to have more families living in this area as we transition from a wartime to a peacetime footing with fewer deployments.”

This summer, the Army announced Fort Drum will inactivate its 3rd Brigade Combat Team and lose about 1,500 soldiers by fiscal year 2017. But Mr. Koch believes that rental housing still will be in high demand near Fort Drum. He said a Fort Drum survey in 2008 found that 85 percent of soldiers want to live five miles or less from where they work.

“The proximity to the gate is a significant draw, and I think there will be a higher vacancy rate at housing further out from the area,” he said.

Because of cramped space, Mr. Koch said, music rooms in the middle and high schools will be expanded to accommodate climbing enrollment over the past decade.

“When we built the high school music space in 2002, it was OK for 90 students, but we have 113 enrolled in the music program right now,” he said. “We’ve seen the same thing happening in the sixth and seventh grade at the middle school.”

Additionally, the middle school’s cafeteria will be expanded by 130 seats, and a multipurpose space will be added for physical education, dance, health and music classes. The middle school’s entryway will be rebuilt to enhance security; administrative offices will be relocated from their current spot to be closer to the front entrance, where guests will check in.

An energy facility with a 0.8 megawatt solar panel system, priced at about $1.8 million, will be built outside the middle school. That panel system will have a 25-year warranty and is expected to recoup its cost in energy savings in 15 years, based on an average annual electricity bill of about $130,000 at the school.

Mr. Koch said the football field at the high school will be completely gutted to build the proposed $4 million turf athletic facility, which calls for new bleachers, retaining walls, storage units and a press box. He said district board members decided to back the $4 million project after considering the slew of needed repairs at the football field.

“We’re going to gut the entire facility, and it wasn’t a difficult decision to come to because we were going to have to do $2 million of work there anyway,” he said.

The turf field will be used daily by physical education classes at the middle and high schools, as well as by the football, soccer and lacrosse teams.

Also included in the plan are 10 classrooms at Evans Mills Primary School, to be built based on the anticipated enrollment increase from the townhouse project planned by Fidelity. If that development project is canceled for some reason, the district will have the option of removing that $3.2 million classroom component from its capital project.

The project includes $360,000 to enhance security at schools, Mr. Koch said, although particulars of those plans have not yet been finalized. The Board of Education has considered installing automated locking systems for classroom doors and upgrading camera systems.

An array of old equipment at the schools will be replaced under the plan, including heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment, kitchen coolers and freezers and plumbing infrastructure. Cracked sidewalks that have become tripping hazards will be repaired, as well as cracks in masonry walls.

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