LAS Prepares for Next Round of Building Renovations

With the renovation of Lowell Middle School complete, officials at Lowell Area Schools say it’s time for the community to turn its attention to other district buildings.

Administrators have put together a three-phase plan that spans the remainder of the decade and will result in more than $104 million in building and facility upgrades. The centerpiece of the plan is a complete renovation of Cherry Creek Elementary School which was originally built as a middle school.

But first, voters need to approve a millage proposal to fund the projects. That will be on the ballot in May, and in recent months, LAS held three community forums to explain to voters what is planned and why.

Ballot Request Same as Current Millage

Each community forum included a presentation from school staff about education funding, an overview of district needs and small group discussion among those in attendance.

During the third forum, held in the Lowell High School band room, LAS chief financial officer Sonia Hodge noted that the district has a $49 million operating budget. The vast majority of that money is used on classroom-related expenses such as teachers, support staff and learning materials. The district gets about $1.1 million per year for its sinking fund, which pays for capital improvement projects.

“A million dollars a year is not going to renovate Cherry Creek,” Hodge said.

Instead, LAS is planning to ask voters to approve 7 mils to be used to fund the Cherry Creek renovation and other projects. Currently, property owners in the school district pay 7 mils for capital projects, but that millage is expiring. If the new millage is approved in May, the current rate would continue with no increase.

Projects Planned in Three Series

If approved in May, capital improvement projects would be scheduled in three phases, based on when money becomes available. The timeline would be as follows:

  • 2024: Cherry Creek Elementary renovation, track and irrigation repairs and technology needs
  • 2028: High school and freshmen center updates and technology needs
  • 2030: 10 projects spanning all remaining district buildings and facilities

About $1 million is budgeted in each series for technology, and Superintendent Nate Fowler told attendees during the third forum that the figure was a placeholder amount intended to cover costs that couldn’t be paid out of other funds.

All projects would be paid for with bonds and then those bonds would be paid off with money raised by the millage. While the interest rate for the bonds is not yet known, the district is planning for around 5%.

“Historically, Lowell Schools has gotten good rates because we’re seen as a safe risk,” according to Fowler.

Orchestra Wing, Pool Garner Public Interest

For many of those in attendance at the final forum, an addition to the high school for the orchestra program was a priority. Several people mentioned that Lowell has an exceptional orchestra but inadequate space to practice.

While a high school arts wing is planned, it isn’t scheduled until the final series of projects. “2030 is a long way away,” one person noted.

Some asked whether the orchestra addition could be bumped to the first series of projects, but it was noted that the district wouldn’t have enough money to complete both the Cherry Creek Elementary renovation and the arts addition in the first series. That’s because the district is limited in how much it can have in bond funds at any given time. As older bonds from the previous millage are paid off, new bonds can be used for additional projects.

“We’ve been running an elementary school for 30 years out of a 1970s concept middle school,” Fowler said in explaining why Cherry Creek’s renovation is the top priority. The school was built with open classrooms that were intended to foster collaboration but instead have proved to be noisy and distracting.

The addition of a pool also garnered support from those in attendance during the November community forum. Fowler acknowledged that many people would like to see a pool at the high school, but they are expensive to build and maintain and would pull resources away from other priorities.

One parent asked if it was a “political reason” not to raise the millage rate, noting that a higher millage could mean additional money for a pool. “The simple answer is yes,” Fowler replied. “Renewals do better when there is no increase.”

It was suggested that perhaps there could be two millage requests: one for a 7-mil renewal and a second one for a pool. Administrators seemed hesitant to embrace that idea though, and Fowler said he thought a pool millage had been proposed in 1994 when the high school was being constructed but that it had been rejected by voters.

School officials said they would take into consideration community feedback from all three forums as they finalized construction plans. The next step is for the bond proposal to be approved by the state before it can be placed on the May 2024 ballot.

More information about the specific projects being proposed can be found in this LAS PowerPoint presentation.

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