July 19, 2014 10:47:07 PM
Lowndes County voters outside Columbus city limits will head to the polls next month to vote "Yes" or "No" on a $47 million school bond issue.
The proposed bond is part of a Lowndes County School District master plan that overhauls campuses in Caledonia, New Hope and West Lowndes.
Phase 1 of the master plan is nearing completion. That phase, which cost $26 million, was paid for by on-hand district funds. The second phase requires the financial backing of a bond issue, which will be voted on Aug. 26.
If 60 percent of votes cast support the bond, it will be implemented.
For taxpayers, passage could mean an average increase of $10 a month, according to school board attorney Jeff Smith. Smith estimates taxes on a $100,000 house would go up between $7 and $9 a month.
The district last passed a bond in 1983 to build a new elementary and high school on the Caledonia campus. Thirty-one years later, noting low interest rates and the growing student population, Smith believes now is the time to pass another.
On Friday, Smith and JBHM architect Joey Henderson sat down with The Dispatch to discuss the details of the bond issue.
What's the plan?
Henderson said Phase 2 of the master plan includes a $14 million career-tech center to be built on Lehmberg Road that will be used by all three campuses; a $26 million high school at New Hope and $2.8 million for extensive renovations to the current New Hope middle school. The remainder of the bond issue will be spread between a new field house and track at both the Caledonia and New Hope campuses; a new weight room at West Lowndes High School and an initiative that will put laptops in the hands of every student.
Prior to Phase 1, the last major renovation within the district occurred with the construction of West Lowndes High School in 2001.
"The last time we did a major construction, West Lowndes got the lion's share of it and Caledonia got some elementary classrooms and New Hope got a little bit," Smith said. "This is going to equalize the campuses."
West Lowndes Elementary and West Lowndes High School have undergone renovations as part of Phase 1. As part of Phase 2, Henderson said West Lowndes would receive mostly infrastructure work.
"It doesn't need as much," Henderson said. "We've taken the middle school children and put them in the high school. We've renovated that space entirely ... we've added new classrooms to the elementary for the sixth grade. That was all in Phase 1. So we went back and looked and talking to principals, this is the list that they came up with."
Caledonia campus also underwent renovations during Phase 1 including the construction of a new elementary school and expanding the current middle school.
The proposed high school field house on the Caledonia campus will include lockers, restrooms and showers, an equipment room, a weight room and a training room.
Other than renovations to the upper elementary physical education facility, New Hope campus received little of the Phase 1 improvements; however with Phase 2, the New Hope campus will undergo a major overhaul.
If the bond passes, a new high school will be built across the street from the current high school, next to the football field. The middle school would move into the high school. The building that houses the fourth and fifth grades, which was the original high school and the oldest building in the district, would be demolished. The elementary school would be divided into lower and upper grades with the higher grades moving into the current middle school building. The younger students would remain at the current elementary school building.
By demolishing the fourth and fifth grade building and moving the high school across the street, Henderson hopes to alleviate traffic congestion that occurs during pickup and drop-off hours.
Smith: 'Time is right'
Financially, Smith said the district has never been in a better position to propose a bond bill.
Noting the likely interest rate of three percent, Smith said he feels the district needs to strike while the iron is hot.
"Interest rates right now are probably at historical lows," Smith said. "You hate to predict the future but we felt like we had a 12- to 14-month window before interest rates started jumping way up."
Smith and Henderson stressed that for taxpayers over 65 years old, the tax increase would be roughly half of that number.
"The same credits you get for homestead exemption you will also get here," Henderson said. "Retired people get a double exemption so that would cut theirs in half to approximately four dollars a month."
Smith said up to this point he felt the school board had used every measure necessary not to raise taxes.
Referencing the $47 million bond, Smith said, "we probably needed about $67 million." However, thanks in large part to the money the district had on hand, Phase 1 was completed without a bond bill.
"We used every dollar that we could save, we had some money in construction funds," he said. "The school district tried to be good stewards of the taxpayers' money so they used every means available without taxes having to go up and they have been saving money for a good period of time. In fact, they just dedicated another $2.5 million out of the fund balance to construction."
If the bond passes, Smith estimates it would be paid off in 19 to 20 years.
Noting the bond issue from 1983, he said, "The bond issue will take Lowndes County School District and have it where we won't have to do another bond issue for 31 years or more."
He added that taxpayers wouldn't see the increase for the next two years.
Smith said Phase 2 of the master plan is necessary for the district to continue to grow. He said Caledonia Elementary and New Hope Elementary are two of the largest elementary schools in northeast Mississippi.
"New Hope has just over 1,100 kids K-5 and Caledonia was 47 short of that so we anticipate this fall, Caledonia will have well over 1,100 kids so we had to have additional facilities," Smith said. "New Hope's high school and middle school had to be redone."
If the bond bill passes on Aug. 26, Henderson said he plans to begin work on Phase 2 on Aug. 27. His goal is to have the entire project completed by 2016.
Sarah Fowler covers crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.
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