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U-46 officials urge spending more on facilities, maybe close old schools

July 02, 2017
By Madhu Krishnamurthy

  • David Kaptain, alcalde de Elgin, admira la arquitectura de McKinley Elementary School, una de las escuelas más viejas del Distrito U-46.
    Elgin Mayor David Kaptain admires the architecture of McKinley Elementary School, one of the oldest in District U-46.

Elgin Area School District U-46 officials say they need to spend more money maintaining facilities and equipment and consider closing aging schools.

District leaders reviewed a spending plan for capital improvements and equipment upgrades over the next five years.

“We’re trying to develop a comprehensive strategy to maintain the district’s $1 billion in buildings and infrastructure,” Jeff King, U-46 chief operations officer, told the school board.

King said the National Council on School Facilities recommends school districts spend 3 percent on yearly maintenance and operations — which amounts to $36 million for U-46. The district spends roughly $15 million on building maintenance.

U-46 maintains 63 buildings, including operational facilities, 40 elementary schools, eight middle schools and five high schools, and two schools not in use.

Sixty-five percent of those buildings are more than 40 years old and rapidly deteriorating, King said, while some schools are at a point where officials might consider abandoning them.

“This June we celebrated Washington Elementary’s 125th anniversary,” U-46 CEO Tony Sanders said. “It was the first school built with indoor plumbing. We have quite a range of ages across our buildings, from those built in 2004 to those built in the late 1800s. The cost of maintaining and keeping them afloat is more than our capacity allows for.”

McKinley, Garfield and Lowrie elementary schools, all in Elgin, were built before Washington.

Officials said operating Garfield is no longer cost-effective as the district spends millions on its maintenance each year.

“Garfield should have been closed years ago,” King said. “I wouldn’t make the recommendation to invest more in the building. (It) is well beyond its life span. It’s a nice historical monument, but not great for a school building.”

King said it could cost between $10 million and $15 million to build a new school, adding it can’t be done without voter approval.

The challenge of closing schools is changing attendance boundaries, Sanders said.

King recommends the district spend $25 million yearly for building repairs and equipment replacement.

It costs U-46 more than $120,000 yearly just to keep Bartlett High School running, considerably more than any other high school.

“On average we spend about $20,000 to $25,000 a month on electricity at our high schools,” said King, adding the cost at Bartlett is between $35,000 and $50,000 per month. “Our costs are just going to continue to escalate.”

Officials also propose introducing a one-to-one technology program for the district’s middle schools starting in the 2018-19 school year. It would be rolled up by one grade level each year through high school until all students have devices by 2022-2023.

All classrooms would be equipped with projection systems and supportive technology. The estimated cost for technology upgrades is $12.5 million over five years.

U-46 has more than 17,000 devices in its schools — an inventory of roughly $11 million. Anytime new curriculum is adopted, the cost of technology and training teachers is embedded, King said.

The plan suggests spending about $20 million over five years to replace the more than 350 buses and 118 support vehicles operated by the district. Classroom furniture also needs to be replaced every 20 years, administrators say, which could cost $32 million for 1,952 classrooms whose equipment on average is more than 25 years old.

U-46 would need to spend more than $33 million yearly on maintenance expenses for the next five years to fund the plan.

“We have about $13 million to $15 million left in the capital fund,” King said. “We don’t have a funding source for most of these items. Lack of a state (budget) plan creates insufficient options for us. You either borrow the money or you just don’t do it, or you spend down the reserves. We can’t recommend to spend down the reserves because you may be doing that anyway this year if they (lawmakers) don’t pass a budget.”

Funding options include raising the tax levy and exploring future debt. Officials also are considering leasing technology and vehicles.

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