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Quaker Valley leaders plan to borrow $10 million to fund possible high school

| Monday, Oct. 30, 2017, 11:00 p.m.

Leaders in the Quaker Valley School District say they plan to borrow $10 million to fund the possible purchase of a 128-acre site off Camp Meeting Road for the construction of a new high school.

School board members at their Oct. 24 meeting voted 8-0 to approve a bond resolution that will allow the district to borrow the money before the end of 2017. Board member David Pusateri was absent.

“Approving the $10 million financing now, before Jan. 1, allows the district to get better rates and a bank qualified loan, which will save the district hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of the loan,” Superintendent Heidi Ondek said.

Proceeding with the borrowing now for the for the project — before board members have agreed to buy the land — was “the wisest, most prudent strategy” for the district and recommended by its financial advisors, Ondek said.

Board members entered a $7.5 million sales agreement this summer to purchase four properties in Leet, Edgeworth and Leetsdale, that Three Rivers Trust previously had purchased with plans to build a home and farm. That plan later was moved to land in Washington County.

Under the sales agreement, Quaker Valley board members have until Dec. 27 to decide if they want to move forward with the purchase.

The district still is going through a checklist of government approvals needed for the site, Ondek said. Engineers, who spent several months reviewing the land, deemed the site suitable for construction of a new high school.

Leaders should have enough information from engineers and local government entities to make a decision in time, Ondek said.

The need for a new high school is evident, Ondek said, pointing to the uniform classroom sizes that don't allow for the variety of lessons in today's high schools.

There is “no amount of modernization” that would allow district leaders to transform the current high school, built in 1929 on 13.98 acres, into the educational facility that is needed, she said. The school also has past water issues and troubles with students not being able to park close to the school. District leaders have said they want a school that offers easy handicap accessibility.

The site of the current high school also is not suitable for the construction of a new school, leaders have said. The state Department of Education guidelines recommends the district build on a site of at least 40 acres.

Schools also are deemed “safe havens” and cannot be built in flood zones, Ondek said.

Engineers who studied the site determined it was not large enough and 70 percent of it was located in a flood plain.

District leaders tasked commercial real estate agents with finding land — even beyond the borders of the district's 11 communities — that was large enough for the school and required combining the least number of properties.

Through that search, district leaders learned residents want to see the high school kept in the community, Ondek said.

The search also yielded few sites appropriate for the proposed project, Ondek said.

“All of those factors together led us to what might be the only potential site and the only site that is available for the school,” she said. Borrowing for the land is needed, Ondek said.

The district, in 2015-16, the latest data available from the state Department of Education, had $1.075 million of committed funds in its fund balance; $2.925 million in its assigned fund balance and $2.878 million in unassigned funds.

“We can't just take it out of the bank,” Ondek said. “For many years, prior boards and administrations knew the community would be facing this high school project. To the extent that we were financially able to, we saved.” However, there were outside factors, like increased operational costs and skyrocketing retirement contributions that the district had to deal with, she said.

Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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