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Support favorable for NHMS project

Support favorable for NHMS project
Support favorable for NHMS project
A PowerPoint presentation shows problems with the aging North Harrison Middle School. Photo by Jo Ann Spieth-Saylor

Not one person spoke against the proposed project of renovating the North Harrison Middle School building ‘ in fact, one person advocated a complete demolition to make way for a new structure ‘ as teachers, administrators, parents and even students described the aging facility during a special meeting, billed as a work session, Jan. 22 of the North Harrison Community School Corp. Board of Trustees. The purpose was to gather information before making a decision about whether to remodel/renovate the structure that was built in 1954 as the high school.
The eighth-grade students ‘ Elizabeth Clemmons, Aislynne Crawford, Bree Edwards, Shelby McClanahan, Abe Tillquist, Lucy Watts and Amerra Wiseman and Deontia Vine ‘ described disgusting smells, exposed pipes, classrooms that are so cold some students wear coats and hats to stay warm and others that are only usable for storage, crowded hallways where a female student sustained a fractured wrist when she was pushed into a row of lockers, deteriorating ceiling tiles, bathroom fixtures at a height more suited for elementary schoolchildren, mold, asbestos and having to go outside in all kinds of weather to travel between the middle school, where their lockers, library, cafeteria and office are located, and the west wing where their classrooms are. Part of the walkway between the two buildings is used as a loading dock, where at least one near-miss shook up a hearing-impaired student and a truck driver.
Some of the students said their parents had attended high school there (it became the middle school in the early 1990s after a new high school was built next door) and acknowledged that the project wouldn’t benefit them but it would their younger siblings as well as all future students, many who will come from Morgan and North Harrison Elementary schools, which were renovated in 2011 and 2008, respectively. They also praised their teachers, saying they deserve better.
‘We’re a four-star school,’ Amerra said. ‘Let’s get ourselves a four-star building.’
It was noted more than once by administrators and teachers that maintenance/custodial staff are not to blame.
‘The condition of our building is not a maintenance personnel issue; our maintenance crew does an excellent job,’ Nathan Freed, the middle school principal for the past three years, said. ‘It’s a facilities issue. It’s worn out; outdated. … Without them, I don’t think we’d be able to have school some days.’
He told about how there is ‘no happy medium’ in room temperatures, citing the all-purpose room was 53 degrees the same day that his office registered 61.
‘There are doors that do not open and lock properly,’ Freed said, and ‘four toilets overflowed at one time yesterday. The roof leaks.’
A PowerPoint presentation by Assistant Supt. Lance Richards documented many of the aforementioned problems.
‘Some windows won’t open; if they do open, they might not close,’ Richards said. ‘Every room has exposed pipes.’
He said NHMS ‘is a T12 building’ and T12 bulbs are no longer made; the tubing for the heating and air conditioning system is dry rotting; there are old screw-in fuses; six-inch cast-iron pipes have built up scale, reducing them to one-inch lines; and a leak discovered in August can’t be fixed without sawing into the cafeteria floor.
Dan Haskell, president of the North Harrison Classroom Teachers Association and a teacher at North Harrison for 25 years, said, ‘Those of you who had Mr. Johnson know that repetition is good for the soul’ before he gave a presentation that pointed out many of the same problems that Richards and the students talked about.
‘When you’re in the building every day, you get use to the smell,’ Haskell said.
He noted that some sixth-graders, in addition to the 190 eighth-grade students, also travel back and forth between the main building and west wing; the seventh-grade bathroom has two stalls and three urinals for 190 students; and there’s one water fountain for that same number of students.
The west wing is not connected into the main building’s alarm system, the building lacks a sprinkler system and electrical panels are easily accessible to all.
‘Fortunately, we have well-behaved students,’ Haskell said.
He continued that building doors ‘are constantly open due to student movement’ and an escape route contains a single-file flight of stairs.
‘North Harrison Middle School students deserve a safe, warm environment,’ he said. ‘Every day we ask our students to give us their very best. It’s time for us to give them the best. … ‘
What’s proposed and estimated costs
The school board also heard cost estimates from Hal Kovert of Kovert Hawkins, the architectural firm that renovated Morgan Elementary, and Mark Shireman of Shireman Construction, which oversaw that project, and a financial report by Damian Maggos of George K. Baum & Co.
Kovert proposes building a two-story classroom wing that would connect on the east side of the existing structure and reworking the present entryway to help increase security.
‘We have to phase (the work) as students will occupy it while we work,’ he said. ‘Then, after that’s completed, we’d move everybody into the new area then build a new kitchen/cafeteria.’
The west wing would be demolished and the gained space would become a parking lot, Kovert said.
John Thomas, school superintendent, said the finished facility would have 30 classrooms, two computer rooms, two pull-out rooms and a workroom/teachers’ lounge.
‘We could always add on if we need to,’ he said.
Students would no longer need to travel outdoors between buildings.
The estimated price tag would be $10 million to construct the new wing of classrooms and to prep the existing structure for renovation. The actual renovation work of the existing building would cost about $2.5 million, as would the kitchen/cafeteria work, for a total cost of $15.2 million, Kovert said.
If work started this fall, targeted completion would be late 2016 or early 2017.
Shireman said they are trying to predict costs as the project, if given the green light, won’t be bid out for several months.
Maggos explained how refinancing the bonds that were sold for the North Harrison Elementary project would save the school corporation about $880,000.
‘Interest rates have come down,’ Maggos said, adding that the process ‘is like refinancing our homes.’
He suggested initially bonding $10 million with the possibility of bonding another $2.5 million in about a year.
Maggos said a single-family dwelling assessed at $70,000 would see a tax increase of about 60 cents a month, while the owner of a $100,000 property would pay about $1.27 more a month, ‘provided everything else stays the same.’ While more variables are involved, Maggos said farmland would have about a 95-cent property tax increase per acre.
The school has some funds on hand to help with finances, he added.
That includes $800,000 in the food services fund that can be used to purchase new kitchen appliances.
Thomas, who has been at NHCSC since 2011, said he was convinced something needed to be done when seeing that $728,702.81 has been spent on the middle school alone for repairs and maintenance in the last five years.
Public, staff’s thoughts include auxiliary gym
It didn’t take long during the session before the question arose about adding an auxiliary gym. (The existing gym was built in 1956 and is in high demand, as pointed out by several who spoke at the meeting.)
School trustee Steve Hanger asked what it would cost to build one between the middle and high schools.
Kovert said one with a full-size basketball court and 300-seating capacity would cost about $2.5 million.
Haskell, who also spoke ‘as a taxpayer, parent and grandparent,’ urged the board to also consider adding a gym.
‘I’m willing to suffer a slight increase’ in property taxes, he said.
‘I’d be willing to pay extra money for it,’ agreed Scott Jones, who said the school’s basketball program, as well as the band, dance team and other groups, would benefit from it. ‘I don’t think we need another parking lot. Let’s make use of that space and help not just athletes.’
Kelly Cooper, middle school P.E. teacher, said he had wanted to apply for a grant from the Harrison County Community Foundation to purchase equipment but there was no place to store it.
Tenured teacher Chuck Walker told about a sticking emergency door that’s been worked on at least 30 times, leaks into expensive technical equipment and painting over stains on walls.
‘Our academics and teaching here are second to none regardless of our building,’ he said. ‘Don’t make the wrong decision regarding our needs.’
About a gym, Walker said, ‘I think it’s needed, and I’m not a basketball guy; I’m a football guy.’
Former school trustee Fred Naegele asked if any air-quality or mold testing had been done.
Richards said, in September, the Indiana Dept. of Environmental Management found no problem with the air quality; however, there was ‘insufficient’ air return, which steps have been taken to correct. About mold, he said, if they see it, they clean it up.
Naegele also asked if state approval would be needed to build an auxiliary gym, to which Thomas said the school corporation could not get a ‘common school loan’ to build one but could bond the project.
Naegele said no one likes for their taxes to go up, ‘but it’s part of keeping up buildings. … The high school is 22 years old; we’re going to have to look at it’ before long.
Another parent, Clint Crosier, said his three children, who went through the renovation project at MES, have never complained about the condition of NHMS. He encouraged the board not to skimp on the building. And, while he coaches soccer, an outdoor sport, he encouraged them to consider an auxiliary gym.
‘We have kids coming wanting to do things,’ he said. ‘We owe it to them.’
The eighth-grade science teacher, Tim Martin, told how there’s no space to store lab equipment, preventing students from doing certain experiments. However, as a parent of two children with allergy problems, he said, ‘I’m not going to send them to a building with problems. … We could lose kids to other schools if we don’t deal with these issues.’
Missy Voyles, a parent of three children and coach of the girls’ varsity basketball team, agreed. She said her son, who was ‘excited’ about school while at Morgan, has had a different reaction to the middle school. After missing several days as a middle schooler, Voyles took him to an allergy specialist.
‘As a teacher, I want a building where I don’t have to empty a (dehumidifier) three times a day,’ she said.
And while she’s more concerned about academics, Voyles told how ‘on any given day’ a football, softball and soccer ball can, and has, come onto the basketball court during practice and the band is practicing in the hallway.
‘We’ve had everything but a clown and an elephant,’ she quipped, adding that there are 14 different teams or groups wanting a place to practice.
‘By adding an auxiliary gym, wouldn’t that eliminate the (outdoor) walkway’ between the middle and high schools? she asked.
Jon Howerton, who retired in 2007 as the middle school principal, said he probably was in the building longer, at 37 years, than anyone there. ‘Folks, this was needed not last year, but 25 years ago,’ he said. ‘You get what you pay for. Don’t do it on the cheap.’
Board members speak out
After about 2-1/2 hours, the five school board members made closing comments.
‘I’m for doing something … everything said today, I agree with,’ Gary Byrne said. ‘The smell’s unacceptable. Like Lance said, the HVAC is part of the problem. Waterless urinals are a problem … ‘
Byrne contends that the board needs to ask more questions. And in a separate interview a week after the meeting, he said he believes the proposed project should go to a referendum, with taxpayers voting for or against the project, rather than the route Thomas has proposed, with bonding $10 million.
‘We are currently $21 million in debt,’ Byrne said.
Byrne also believes the NHES school bonds should be refinanced immediately to take advantage of the lower interest rate, rather than waiting and taking a chance rates don’t increase.
During the work session, Byrne expressed concern about what would happen to tax rates if the county’s riverboat casino went away.
‘We don’t have big business here like other (school) corporations,’ he said. ‘ … I know I’m not going to be popular.’
Veronica Battista asked Maggos if it was his recommendation to proceed the way that had been outlined.
‘I think that is the most efficient way … , ‘ he said. ‘You have this great opportunity to refinance.’
Battista said, ‘We have the benefit of a low interest rate and the riverboat. … Our job is to provide a place to educate our kids.’
Steve Hanger, a former teacher, said, ‘I know how difficult it is to teach in an uncomfortable environment ‘ We know something needs to be done.’
‘I agree with Mr. Hanger,’ Gregg Oppel said. ‘We’re talking about the riverboat going away … It’s still here.’
Oppel also said he is an advocate of an auxiliary gym.
‘I agree with Gregg,’ Marla Adams said. ‘The riverboat is still here. We’ve been thinking it would be gone, but it’s still here.’
The last comments came from Thomas, responding to Byrne’s accusation that the superintendent had misled the Harrison County Council last fall when Thomas asked to use its share of riverboat funds to reduce property taxes and told the council he had no plans that would increase the school corporation’s debt.
Thomas told Byrne that, when he made the request, he had no plans or figures for a middle school project.
‘I stand corrected,’ Byrne replied.
‘I’m not correcting you,’ Thomas said. ‘You’re one of my bosses.’
What’s next
The school board’s next regular meeting has been changed from the second Thursday to the third, Feb. 19, at 7 p.m., and the location has been moved to Morgan Elementary School.
As of Monday, the agenda was not yet ready, so it is not known if the middle school project will be discussed at that meeting.