New high school remains a need
A Local Planning Committee will soon begin work on a new facilities plan for Woodford County Public Schools. The greatest facility need in the school district remains a new high school, according to schools Superintendent Scott Hawkins. However, the cost of building a new high school remains too expensive for that project to happen in the near future. The district currently has $11 million in bonding capacity for construction projects. And the cost of building a high school far-exceeds $11 million. For example, a new high school being built in Fayette County - with a capacity for 1,800 students - will cost $63 million. "So it's going to be a pretty high-dollar facility when you start looking at a high school," said Hawkins during a recent interview. The school district's current debt of $27 million reduces its bonding capacity from $38 million to $11 million. As the district reduces its debt, the dollars available to borrow will rise, according to Chief Operating Officer Amy Smith. "While we do have debt of a pretty substantial amount," said Hawkins, "I think we've made good use of the dollars when you look at the facilities that we've made improvements to or built new." Bond payments are still being made on the Huntertown Elementary renovation (in 2008), the Simmons Elementary renovation (in 2005) and the construction of a new middle school. Hawkins pointed out that the district saved financing costs because of a decision to simultaneously replace the HVAC systems at Northside and Southside elementary schools last summer. Those buildings are "very functional and in great shape," said Smith, "but there are systems that after 25 years need to be replaced." Overall, she said, "We've got very well-maintained buildings, and they're in great shape." Currently, the district pays about $2.4 million annually on debt payments. So an additional $2.4 million will become available (as additional bonding capacity) next fiscal year if property tax assessments and student enrollment remain constant, according to Smith. Any new property development - industry, commercial and residential - would likely generate additional tax revenue (and bonding capacity) for the school district. However, any decision to borrow dollars for a construction project would increase the district's debt and also decrease how much the district can bond, Smith said. While those unknowns make setting a timetable for building a new high school problematic, Hawkins said, "We want to do it as quickly as we possibly can, and still be in good financial position." He did acknowledge that significant growth in student population in the near term could potentially make building a new high school a more urgent facility need. Hawkins said an added benefit of building a new high school is an opportunity to bring athletic and other facilities to its campus. Non-athletic facilities may include an auditorium - a space that the school district currently lacks in any of its buildings, he added. The local Board of Education purchased 61 acres adjacent to the Woodford County Middle School campus in 2012 for a new high school site. The district also owns sufficient land near WCMS for a fifth elementary school. The school district's Local Planning Committee will likely begin its work on a new facilities plan in October - after anyone interested in serving on the committee submits their names for consideration, and committee members are selected. Parents, teachers, principals and members of the community will serve on the Local Planning Committee (LPC), with each school having at least one LPC representative "because we want everybody to have a voice and seat at the table," said Hawkins. He will provide information and input as non-voting member of the LPC. Based on what was prioritized in the last facilities plan, the superintendent said, "I would be surprised if anything replaced a new high school as the top priority." School districts in Kentucky are required to do a facilities plan every four years. Woodford County schools went through that process during the 2012-13 school year, with the Board of Education unanimously approving a facilities plan in May 2013. Among the recommendations in the most recent facilities plan was repurposing the Early Childhood Center as the district's alternative school: Safe Harbor Academy, replacing the HVAC systems at Northside and Southside elementary schools, and making upgrades in school security systems. Those recommendations have been accomplished. While he acknowledged that Woodford County High School is not the most attractive high school in the state, Hawkins said that building remains "very functional . and it has been well taken care of." An estimated cost for replacing the high school's aging HVAC system - installed during a 1996 renovation - is $7.5 million. However, contractor bids on the project may come in significantly lower than the estimate, which was the case for the recently-completed elementary school HVAC projects. Because WCHS is significantly larger than those elementary school buildings, Hawkins said replacing the high school's HVAC system would likely occur in phases - not during one summer, but "I'd like to be able to get five more years out of it." Besides including a new high school as a long-term goal, the most recent district facilities plan also supported renovating the existing high school building as a Central Office with additional spaces for alternative education, preschool programs and community education. "It's got a great location. It's good space. You've got great parking. So there are a lot of positives to (repurposing) that building," said Hawkins.