When voters approved construction of a new school building on Foreman Street for $1.1 million in 1962, it was intended to house 600 high school students. Today, the building is home to 870 middle school students with more possibly on the way in the next 5-10 years.
Over time, the building that is now Lowell Middle School has been expanded, renovated and reconfigured so that now it is a maze of sprawling corridors and small classrooms. Students have to trek across the building to lockers, and there are blind spots in the cafeteria which make it difficult to monitor student behavior.
Lowell Area Schools is hoping to change that. The district is proposing nearly $50 million in facility upgrades including a $33.5 million major renovation and addition to the middle school.
“This is needs-based,” Greg Pratt, superintendent of Lowell Area Schools, told a crowd of parents during a community forum held last week. “It’s not wants.”
The district held three community forums to discuss the proposal with parents and community members, and more than 600 people responded to an online survey. The plan will be revised based on that feedback and then presented to the Lowell Board of Education. If approved by the board, voters could see the bond proposal on next May’s ballot.
No Millage Increase Proposed
Pratt says he doesn’t want to raise property taxes in order to make needed updates to district buildings. Instead the $50 million bond proposal will roll in current debt and extend the repayment term while keeping the millage rate the same.
Currently, Lowell Area Schools owes $44 million from previous projects. At the current repayment rate, which costs district property owners 7 mills, that debt would be eliminated by 2030.
Under the new proposal, property owners would continue to pay 7 mills for debt retirement, but the repayment period would extend 30 years. “The minute you start looking for new dollars, the chances of passage decrease,” Pratt says. So instead of a millage increase, the district is hoping area residents will be willing to pay the same rate for a longer period in order to get needed improvements done.
Pratt adds that the district is looking to make the best use of money possible. For instance, some forum participants have asked why the district is renovating the aging middle school rather than building from scratch. Pratt notes that by renovating the existing structure, the district can have a middle school that looks and feels new for $33.5 million while a brand new building would cost at least $60 million. “I think there are some really good bones here,” he says.
Renovations Planned Across District
The bond proposal includes renovations for almost all the district buildings. Alto Elementary – currently the district’s largest elementary school with approximately 500 students – is in line for a $3.8 million addition that would add five classrooms, a collaboration area and enhanced security. It would also enclose three open classrooms.
Updates to other buildings will include:
- New mechanical systems at Alto and Bushnell Elementary Schools
- New roofing and exterior doors at Cherry Creek Elementary School
- New lighting control and parent drop-off lane at Murray Lake Elementary School
- Improvements to a North Athletic Complex at Lowell High School
However, the most significant plans are for Lowell Middle School. The school will receive a complete renovation if the bond proposal passes. While the central interior section will remain, the front wing will come off to create a new entrance with two drop-off lanes facing Foreman.
“It used to be 50-60 parents would drop off their kids,” Pratt says. “Now, 140 parents drop off.” That has created back-ups to Lincoln Lake. The school adjusted its drop-off procedures this year to alleviate some of the congestion, but the renovation would completely change the drop-off process.
At the rear of the building, a two-story addition would be added to create three learning communities and locker commons with clear lines of vision for teachers to monitor students as they rotate between classes. There would also be a new kitchen and cafeteria as well as larger classrooms with more natural daylight. Pratts notes that research indicates test scores rise 15-20 percent when students are exposed to more daylight.
The middle school renovation would be completed in two phases so students would not have to be relocated to another building during construction. Once done, the building would be expected to hold up 1,100 students to accommodate future growth.
Next Stop is the Board of Education
Pratt was pleased with the turnout and feedback the district received through the community forums and survey. “It’s a big decision,” he told Lowell’s First Look. “We want to get as much input as possible.”
Already, some changes to the plan have been made to reflect that input. An additional route for the drop-off line was added to avoid overcrowding Foreman Street, and the existing auditorium will be saved and enclosed.
Once feedback from the latest community forum is incorporated, a final proposal will be presented to the Board of Education. If they approve it, the plan will then go to voters in May 2019 for the final say.
If you’d like to learn more about what’s included in the plan, a presentation outlining its key components is available online.