Whitehall to test waters for support of bond issue

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 Messenger photo by Dianne Garrett

Whitehall Schools Treasurer Tim Penton answers questions posed by the Community Engagement Leadership Team during an informational meeting on a possible bond issue Oct. 30.  The district has been identified by the Ohio Schools Facilities Commission as a candidate to receive funding to assist with constructing all new school buildings with local tax support. Next to him is Superintendent Judyth Dobbert-Meloy.

Students in Whitehall could possibly see all new school buildings in the not-so-distant future through state funds matched with approval of a local bond issue.  

That decision is projected to end up in the hands of voters in November, 2008.

On Oct. 30, about 30 homeowners, school administrators, teachers, board members, Parks and Recreation Director Terry Gee and consultants met to begin the informational process, and form the Community Engagement Leadership Team.  

In January they will begin an informational sharing and gathering with community members.

According to Superintendent Judyth Dobbert-Meloy, the Ohio School Facilities Commission (OSFC) is an independent state agency charged with providing funding, management oversight and technical assistance to local school districts for construction and renovation of school facilities.

When the commission was established in 1997, there were 3,500 school buildings in Ohio.  Over the past 10 years they have worked with 75 percent of the districts performing facility assessments, and developing plans for addressing their needs.

 

The process is based directly on property wealth. Districts with the lowest property values are funded first.  Whitehall ranks  240 of 612.

Taken into consideration during the assessments are building structures, mechanical and electrical systems, instructional adequacy, safety and security systems.  

Buildings that will cost more than two-thirds of the cost of replacement to renovate are recommended to be demolished and rebuilt.  Whitehall qualifies in that category.  

It was noted that Whitehall is the only district in Franklin County without air conditioning in its buildings. All buildings were constructed between 1955 and 1963.

 

The total cost of rebuilding would be about $65 million, with the state paying 62 percent.  

The community would be required to approve a bond issue for the remaining 38 percent, which equals $35 million.  

In January the team members plan to go out into the community arranging "coffees" where school administrators will be on hand for questions and discussion.  

"The board will make the final determination on participation in the OSFC program, as well as the scope of the project based on input from the citizens," said Dobbert-Meloy.

Repairs and maintenance are costing the district about $600,000 a year, and the superintendent anticipates that will soon escalate to $1 million a year because of the age of the buildings.

New buildings could also entice students back to the district who are enrolled in charter schools.  The average charter enrollment is about 230.  

Enrollment in Whitehall is up by about 100 students this school  year, and the district has open enrollment with Columbus.  

The district has had a steady improvement in its graduation rate.  In 2001, 73.5 percent of student graduated.  In 2007 that rate increased to 90.9 percent, according the state report card.  

Educational programming is changing dramatically, and schools must now provide much broader services to meet the needs of students and families.  The district has been demonstrating continual improvement in student achievement over the past few years despite the limitations of the facilities.  

However, staff members and OSFC agree that the buildings are not adequate to meet the needs of students in the future.  

Over 200 districts throughout the state are already providing students with new facilities.  The city is experiencing growth with the recent business development, therefore, modern and efficient buildings will add to that enhancement and growth.

Where the district stands

Treasurer Tim Penton anticipates that residents will want to know what the financial status of the Whitehall district is, as the 2007-2008 school year begins.

The district continues to operate on the 13-mill levy passed by voters in 1995, he explained.  At that time it was projected that the school board would not have to return to the community for additional financial support until 2000.  

But through prudent spending, and additional money received from the state, the operating funds are solid through 2011.  

"It is our goal to continue this practice for as long as possible, and to avoid asking the community for additional operating money until absolutely necessary," stated Penton.

Bond levy money must be used for the sole purpose of constructing school buildings.  Money generated by an operating levy may be used to pay teacher salaries, insurances and utility bills.  Permanent improvement levy money must be used to purchase capital assets or maintain existing assets.

Penton also explained why the board is considering asking the community for a bond levy, a permanent improvement levy and an operating levy all at the same time.  

The process of building five new school buildings will, in all likelihood, take three to four years from the time that a bond levy is passed, he said.  

Based on the current five-year forecast, the board recognizes the potential need for additional operating money by 2012 and beyond.  In fairness to the voters, the board wants to be honest about the anticipated need for operating money once the new schools are opened in 2012, according to Penton.  

A 0.5-mill permanent improvement levy is required by the facilities commission on all of its projects for the purpose of insuring proper maintenance into the future.  This requirement is similar to purchasing mortgage insurance on a house, Penton said.

Two more organizational meetings are scheduled for Nov. 28 and Dec. 10 at 7 p.m. in the high school library.  Anyone interested in attending can call Patty Bridges at 417-5001, as there is limited seating.  

Any individuals, civic organizations or businesses who may be interested in hosting a "coffee" can also call Bridges.

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