MAKING CENTS: School officials weigh the costs

Editor’s note: This is the final installment of a four-part series on public school funding and how money is dispersed within a school system.Ask the average Whitley County resident about any of the county’s three school systems and they might mention the score of Friday night’s football game, which teachers are the most popular with their children or what school was like in years past when they attended.Not many residents could speak with authority about the costs to maintain the county’s public schools.The Capital Projects Fund is fueled by county property taxes.In 2009, a re-assessment occurred that caused a significant loss to the fund. The Indiana Department of Education determined that a levy would be imposed on this particular fund. That means the fund is capped at a certain amount. This is based on a percentage of the property tax rate. The property tax rate is determined by property value assessment. When that assessment went down, so did school dollars. Although schools might need more money for renovations, the state does not allow schools to move money around from earmarked account such as the Transportation Fund in order to pay for a construction project. The funds are separated by the state with little decision made by local school officials.When it comes to maintaining and repairing school buildings, the costs are enormous. In one invoice alone, Columbia City High School received a bill for $18,000 invoice to have a water line repaired.At Whitko High School, the costs to maintain the parking lot and roof are almost enough to drain the fund all together. Smith-Green Community Schools is fighting against rising costs by renovating parts of its building to be more energy efficient in hopes that future operating costs will be lowered.The costs are high and the dollars are few. CCHS: to build or not to buildWhen it comes to Whitley County Consolidated Schools very seldom is a discussion had that doesn’t include the condition of its high school.With a school building dating back to the 1950s, area residents recently voted to not build a new high school. WCCS Business Manager Anthony Zickgraf said “In our case the majority of the high school was built in 1958. In a normal life of a building you might replace things like a door knob. In our case, the door falls off the hinges.”Zickgraf said that CCHS’s building repairs have quadrupled due to the nature of what needs to be replaced. “We had a water line break going from the boiler room to the kitchen and we couldn’t repair the pipe. We had to have all new. We spent $18,000 rerouting the water and gas lines to accommodate that,” said Zickgraf. “Those kinds of costs are nothing compared to a newer building where things like that don’t happen. The infrastructure is wearing out.”Because schools have experienced deep cuts in funding, teachers have been let go and class sizes have increased. Zickgraf said for CCHS, the cuts are a double curse.“In the two-story part of CCHS, most of those classrooms are 650 sq. ft. The average classroom today is 1,100 sq. ft. We have 30 students in a room and 30 laptops. That leaves the teacher with no mobility to break into small groups,” said Zickgraf. “The other question becomes how do we heat and cool rooms with that amount of bodies in the room and technology in the room? Plus, how do we accommodate the electrical demands for that technology? It is a real struggle in that building. As we adjust the class size, they are getting bigger yet the rooms are smaller. Can that building satisfy the education needs of today? We are struggling with that.” The other issue facing the aging building is the need to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Zickgraf said in recent years, CCHS has undergone some renovations in order to become more handicapped accessible, but the changes made still aren’t enough.“We did the best we could with what we had, but it still isn’t right,” said Zickgraf. “The gym doesn’t have handicapped seating. There is no way for them to be in the cheer block. We could cut the bleachers out, but what if they want to use the bathroom or go to the concessions? It just isn’t ADA friendly at all.”Zickgraf said some arrangements were made for students who wanted to take a physical education class. A back door entrance was created so students could access the gym without being hindered by stairs. Even with that change, students have to use an entrance that is separated from fellow classmates.Again, classroom size, coupled with the number of students in the room, makes for awkward mobility for students in wheel or motorized chairs. Zickgraf said, “It just makes it harder for those students to feel included.”According to Zickgraf, when Whitley County residents were presented with a tax increase to support building a new high school, WCCS leaders did not portray the need strongly enough.“I think we as a school corporation didn’t convey to the public what was wrong with the building and we have to do a better job with that. Taxes are a dirty word and we were proposing a tax increase,” said Zickgraf.The construction issues that loom over CCHS are not just a matter of new paint and carpet. Zickgraf said it is more about giving teachers an environment where they can teach at their highest level while giving students a building that would elevate learning. “What could our teachers do in a building that supports the educational needs of students these days?” Zickgraf asked.The issue is not dead. Zickgraf said the topic of building a new high school will come up again. When will that be? He isn’t sure, but Zickgraf said that the high school building can’t continue on its current path. “If we wanted to build a $60 million school building it would increase the tax rate .38 and double our debt service rate. People are not going to accept that in our soft economy and the school board knows that. How long do we keep the high school going?”Zickgraf said he and school board members have to consider when the corporation retires existing debt. The largest debt load comes from Indian Springs Middle School which isn’t scheduled to be paid in full until 2020. The ideal situation would be for that debt to retire and a new high school built, keeping the tax rate close to where it is now. Zickgraf said he would like to see the middle school debt fall off and the costs for a new high school pick up where the middle school debt ended.“We would have to show the public why they would need to spend more money on schools. For 20 years the tax rate would be impacted by the new school,” said Zickgraf. “Waiting for the middle school to be paid off means we have to wait another seven years before even beginning to look at a new high school. Can we wait that long? Can the building last another seven years? We’ll have to wait and see.”Waiting it out could be a costly solution. As WCCS watches the years tick by on the debt owed for Indian Springs Middle School, the years of wear and tear continue to mar CCHS. The Capital Projects Fund does not have enough money to keep up with the repairs the building needs.According to the numbers in 2012, WCCS had $3 million allotted for Capital Projects for repairs, but that fund also included purchasing equipment and keeping up in the area of technology. Zickgraf said that technology alone is costing $1.5 million, so the decision has to be made between making repairs or buying computers. **Read the rest of the story in today's The Post & Mail