Proposed West Jefferson Hills high school project would result in steady loans
By Stephanie Hacke
Published: Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Incremental loans and staggered tax increases will be under consideration in the West Jefferson Hills School District for the next several years to help finance a proposed $70 million high school construction project.
The project has yet to be designed or granted final approval.
“We're trying to do all of this in a methodical, correct manner,” school-board President Anthony Angotti said.
Board members, in a unanimous vote last week, authorized administrators to work with a financial adviser and bond and legal counsels to issue $9.9 million in general-obligation bonds to fund a portion of the high school project.
This is a first step in a process in which district leaders plan to take out bonds annually through 2018 to help finance the construction of a new high school, said Tracy Harris, district director of finance. Bond issues likely would range from $4.5 million to $22.5 million, according to a plan presented to the board by Public Financial Management Inc. director Jamie Doyle.
Simultaneously, the plan that was given to school board members in April and updated in September proposes that board members approve annual tax increases to the state-allowed index under Act 1 and encourages leaders to apply for exceptions to raise taxes above the index. Tax increases likely would range from 0.39 to 0.53 of a mill during the next several years. That would bring the 18.104-mill tax rate to 20.954 mills in 2020.
Board members in June agreed to a 0.39-of-a-mill tax increase for the 2013-14 school year that brought the district's millage to 18.104. The rate had been reduced for that year from 21.08 because of the court-ordered countywide reassessments.
One mill in West Jefferson Hills brings in about $1.3 million.
School officials will review numbers each year to determine if a tax increase to help fund the high school project is an option, Harris said.
“We will look at that every year,” Harris said. “All of the options will need to be looked at every year.”
The plan would not require a referendum vote seeking residents approval to raise taxes above the state-issued index for West Jefferson Hills.
District officials have not made a decision if they will seek referendum approval to build a new high school to replace the deteriorating more than 50-year-old Thomas Jefferson High School on Old Clairton Road, Angotti said.
“Obviously, the goal is not to fund this project through referendum,” Angotti said, “not to say that that is off the table.”
Many unknowns remain for the project, district leaders agreed.
“We have no ideas as to what a facility will look like,” Angotti said. “As things progress, it all will become clearer.”
District officials at the end of May completed the purchase of 151 acres of vacant property on Old Clairton Road adjacent to the district's administration building, according to Allegheny County records.
That property was purchased for $1,075,000 through money from the district's general fund, Harris said.
“We bought the property for the purpose of building the building,” Harris said.
More testing, such as geo-technical surveying, still needs to be done on the land, Superintendent Michael Panza said.
Board members met Monday and Tuesday to interview three construction-management firms for the high school construction project.
Once a firm is selected, the next step is selecting an architect that will complete a design for the new high school, Panza said. Plans are for the new high school to be open in the 2018-19 school year.
A facilities master plan that was given to the board earlier this year but has yet to receive final approval outlines building-upgrade needs for all five district schools, and plans for the high school construction project are being updated, Angotti said.
Once approved, the facilities master plan will give a clearer picture on where the district is headed with the high school project, he said.
Financially, district leaders are working to ensure there is money not only for a high school construction project but also to make upgrades during the next 10 years in the four other schools and in the current high school building, until a new one would be ready for use, Angotti said.
Board members last week, in a unanimous vote, approved a motion “committing” $1.1 million in the general fund for construction or renovation of facilities.
As of June 2012, the district has $17.5 million in committed funds. The addition brought the committed funds to $18.6 million as of July, Harris said.
Committed funds include $10.1 million for future capital projects, $3 million for post retirements, $4.5 million for future retirements and $1 million for health insurance. The district also has $3 million in uncommitted funds.
Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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