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South Hills

West Jefferson Hills leaders look at several options for elementary reconfiguration

| Friday, Jan. 19, 2018, 8:54 p.m.
Gill Hall Elementary school
Gill Hall Elementary school

West Jefferson Hills School District leaders say there are several options to fund an estimated $7 million reconfiguration of the district's elementary schools.

And they're confident the reconfiguration — along with launching full-day kindergarten — could be in place for the 2018-19 school year.

After a month of public meetings, Superintendent Michael Ghilani and Assistant Superintendent Matthew Patterson presented board members with recommendations to overhaul the district's elementary schools at their Jan. 16 meeting. Two residents were in attendance.

The pitch: Turn McClellan and Gill Hall elementary schools into kindergarten through second grade only buildings. Jefferson Elementary would serve as a third-to-fifth grade building.

Board members are expected to vote on the proposal at their Jan. 23 meeting.

Changes are needed, leaders say, as growth in the district has left class sizes in some buildings at more than 31 students and McClellan Elementary beyond capacity.

The plan comes with a price tag of $7 million and includes the addition of 10 classrooms at Gill Hall, plus adding air conditioning to the school, acquiring property and reconfiguring the parking lot.

To pay for this, leaders said, there are several options, which coincide with financing for the new $95 million Thomas Jefferson High School, set to open for the 2018-19 school year.

In 2015, a plan was set to pay for the new high school by borrowing $85.7 million over six years, raising taxes for seven consecutive years by a total of 3.02 mills to cover the debt and taking the remainder out of the district's fund balance.

With market values increasing and good interest rates on bonds over the last five years, Tracy Harris, director of finance, told board members that there is a chance the district will not need to raise the millage rate as high as initially thought for the high school project. However, she reiterated that all numbers were estimated.

That could help with funding the elementary reconfiguration project.

Harris told board members they have options: They can borrow the approximately $7 million from the district's fund balance, with an agreement to pay the money back, or they can take the money from the reserve.

The district has $32.7 million in its fund balance, $20 million of which is set aside for capital projects. Depending on bond rates for the final year of borrowing for the high school project, it will be determined how much will need to be used from the fund for the high school project.

With increasing revenues and new housing in the community, the district's borrowing capacity for the new high school has increased to $91.9 million, from $85.7 million. Board members will determine this fall if they want to borrow to the capacity of stick with the initial borrowing plan, Harris said.

If board members choose to borrow the estimated $7 million from the district's fund balance to pay for the elementary reconfiguration project, they would have the option of taking out a bond to pay back the district reserve, Harris told board members. To pay back that bond, it would require an estimated 0.32-mill tax increase, depending on rates, which district leaders say they're cautiously optimistic could be covered under the already planned tax increases for the high school project.

Ghilani recommended the district take out a bond to pay back at least some of the money it borrows from the fund balance, to ensure there is money left in its reserve for future projects or a rainy day.

“We would try and have as minimal of an impact on the taxpayers as possible,” he said.

Board members also were set to vote Tuesday night on the hiring of a geographic information system consultant who would draw the line through the district for which students go to which kindergarten through second grade school.

Ghilani said his hope is the line only needs to be drawn once and plans to stick with the most efficient line.

Board members raised concerns that they don't want to see the line shift in a few years as enrollment increases.

District leaders said the plan is that once the line is established, that's where it stays.

Plans for the addition at Gill Hall have not been finalized, however leaders said the addition will be complete within three years.

Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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