(Posted June 7, 2023)
By Kristy Zurbrick, Madison Editor
Does the district go back to the ballot? If so, when and with what proposal?
These are questions the Madison-Plains school board considered in a work session on May 31 in the wake of the district’s failed attempt to pass a bond issue to build a new facility for all grades.
The cost of the proposed project was $68 million. If passed, the levy would have covered $63 million, and the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission (OFCC) would have covered the rest. The 9.9-mill property tax to cover the debt service would have cost taxpayers $347 per year per $100,000 of property valuation. A little over 55 percent of voters cast “no” votes.
School board president Mark Mason favors returning to the ballot for the Nov. 7 election, saying the need for new facilities hasn’t changed, however, he wants to find a way to lower the millage in order to lower the burden on taxpayers.
One of many scenarios the board discussed would involve the school district contributing funds to the facility project. Treasurer Todd Mustain laid out a couple of scenarios, both of which assume the scope of the project would remain the same as what was proposed for the May ballot issue. If the district contributed $500,000 per year to the building project, the millage request would drop from 9.9 mills to 8.7 mills, he said. If the amount was $1 million per year, the millage would drop to 7.5 mills.
School board member Bryan Stonerock agreed with Mason about better chances of success with a lower millage request, but he is concerned about the district making contributions to the project. The more money the district commits to that scenario, the sooner the district would be back to voters for its regular permanent improvement and operating levies.
Superintendent Chad Eisler’s opinion is that the board go back to voters with a request similar to the first attempt.
“This was our best first attempt for a bond issue in school district history,” he said of the May 2 election results. He added the board could take the time between now and the next election to continue to inform the public of the need and the plan.
No matter what direction the district takes with future levy attempts, board vice president Anthoula Xenikis wants the district to address some of the concerns taxpayers expressed in the last election, including the amount of land to be used for a new facility project and providing a visual plan for its layout and placement on campus.
Other funding/financing possibilities
After the May 2 election, the district became aware of a couple of unconventional financing and funding opportunities for the facility project, Eisler reported.
After the election, the Hillsboro, Ohio, office of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reached out to Madison-Plains, offering a 3.75 percent fixed interest rate on a bond issue through the federal government. The current interest rate for the proposed project is 5 percent through a traditional municipal bond setup. If the 3.75 percent rate were secured, the district could drop its millage request from 9.9 mills to 8.7 mills, Mustain said.
The offer comes with challenges and unknowns, Eisler noted. For one, the USDA requires an environmental study which usually takes 60 to 90 days, and the interest rate is set to change on July 1. Additionally, the federal Build America By America Act (BABA) requires that such projects use only American-made materials which could increase costs. Also, as far as the district knows, the OFCC has not done a project involving the BABA Act, and only one other Ohio school district has partnered with USDA for this type of financing.
At this time, Eisler and Mustain said they are pursuing the opportunity despite the hurdles because it presents a potential cost savings. Due to time constraints for ballot deadlines, however, Mustain said it’s not likely they would have an agreement in place in time for the November ballot.
The other unconventional opportunity that came up after the May election involves the state budget which Gov. Mike DeWine is slated to sign into law on July 1.
“We were made aware of an opportunity to increase the state share for the (facility) project through a proposed amendment to the Ohio Revised Code,” Eisler said.
Right now, Madison-Plains qualifies for 9 percent funding through OFCC for the facility project. If the proposed amendment were signed into law with the state budget, the district could get an additional 25 percent in OFCC funding for the project, taking the state contribution from $5.5 million to $21 million and lowering the millage rate for a proposed bond issue from 9.9 mills to 7.5 mills.
In return, the district would have to work with a state community college on agriculture preservation and service industry workforce development programs and curriculum. This opportunity and requirement would be available to any school district planning to build a new building on existing district land used for agricultural purposes.
Madison-Plains leaders presented the proposed amendment language to state senators Bob Hackett and Stephanie Kunze who, in turn, introduced it into the state budget process.
“We do not know how this is going to turn out at this point in time, but Mr. Mustain and I want to do everything we can to try to help save this community money,” Eisler said.
The district’s original bond issue proposal included $6.5 million in locally funded initiatives (LFI) for a larger main gym, a third gym, and a dedicated auditorium–features OFCC will not contribute funding to because its focus is academic spaces.
In presenting ideas at the May 31 board work session, Eisler and Mustain brought up the idea of shifting the LFI funding portion of the proposal to renovating the high school rather than tearing it down. Renovation would provide much needed extra gym space. The mezzanine could be used for athletic storage, batting cages, and practice space for cheerleading and community sports. Various existing classroom space could be converted for wrestling practice space, extension of the auditorium’s backstage area, and administrative offices. The commons area could become a community room with display cases showcasing school district memorabilia. The library could become a community room and board meeting space. Other parts of the building could be repurposed for a technology work room and storage, maintenance area, and shipping and receiving area.
Mustain said the cost to make renovations for such uses would be roughly half the cost of creating new classroom space and would eliminate the need for auxiliary construction. At that rate, the cost to renovate the entire high school would be roughly $16 million. If the district wants to stay at or below an LFI amount of $6.5 million, though, they would only be able to renovate 40 percent of the structure. Such a scenario also would come with increased utility costs, Mason noted. He later added that he is not interested in any proposal that would raise the overall cost of the project.
Solar project funds
Some residents have asked about the possibility of paying for new school facilities using funds promised to the district by local solar farm projects. Eisler acknowledged that it is a valid question and a valid potential use of the funds, but he is leary about committing those future funds to specific uses.
The district hasn’t received any solar funding to date. The first payments aren’t due until next year. Eisler also noted that solar projects have experienced delays. He added that he didn’t want to essentially borrow against future revenues.
Mason commented that use of solar funding for a facilities project would mean the district would need to return to voters sooner than currently planned for regular operating levies.
If the board decides to go back on the ballot in November, they must submit the ballot issue to the Madison County Board of Elections by Aug. 9.
The board has made no decisions at this time and will continue to discuss options. The board’s next regular meeting is June 20 at 7 p.m.