Brooke board narrows bond issue aim

WELLSBURG – Brooke County school officials decided Wednesday they will have to narrow their plans for three new schools to one to prevent a large increase in taxes for Brooke County residents.

Recently the school board announced plans to put on ballots in the November general election a bond issue to raise local funds for a new middle school and two new primary schools.

But Brian Ferguson, the board’s vice president, said raising sufficient funds for all three would require taxes for Brooke County residents to be doubled and possibly tripled.

He and other school board officials have said they want to avoid raising taxes. For that reason, the bond issue, if approved, is timed to follow the expiration of the school district’s current 15-year bond issue.

At a work meeting Wednesday board members suggested pursuing state and local funds for a new middle school only was more feasible.

Plans call for the middle school to be built near Brooke High School and replace Follansbee and Wellsburg middle schools. The board is considering the grassy parking area used by students during the school day and by those attending the school’s football games.

Its cost has been estimated at about $30 million, while the cost for each primary school has been estimated at $16 to $20 million.

Plans called for the primary schools to replace the school district’s seven existing primary schools and serve the northern and southern halves of the county.

Property owned by the school board near the high school and Franklin Primary School and on the Follansbee Middle School football field have been suggested for their locations.

Superintendent Kathy Kidder-Wilkerson said the move isn’t a total departure from the board’s plans. They had envisioned building the new schools in phases, but had hoped to secure funds for them at the same time, she said.

The decision came as the board was finalizing details for Kidder-Wilkerson to include when she pitches the project to the state School Building Authority in Charleston on March 17.

If the pitch is successful, the state board could provide up to 40 percent of the project’s cost.

Kidder-Wilkerson said the board has stepped up efforts to secure state funds after learning a $100,000 grant is available through the School Building Authority for costs involved in planning the project.

Those costs can include legal counsel for the bond issue and a financial advisor to assist in preparing it. The board is expected to consider hiring Goodwin & Goodwin of Charleston for its bond counsel and Piper Jaffray & Co. of Pittsburgh for its financial advisor at its next regular meeting.

The meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Monday at the board’s office at 1201 Pleasant Ave.

But the two won’t be paid until the bond issue is approved since the school board may not use the planning grant if the project is canceled.

School officials haven’t decided whether to include upgrades to the high school’s heating ventilation and air conditioning system, estimated at $6 million, in the bond issue.

Kidder-Wilkerson and Rob Robinson, the school district’s facilities supervisor, said the system is aging and in need of frequent repair.

A merger of the primary schools into two and the middle schools into one was established as a goal in the 10-year comprehensive educational facilities plan adopted by the school board in 2010.

The plan was developed by McKinley and Associates and Planning Advocates with input from a committee of 43 teachers and community members.

Rising costs to maintain the existing older school buildings and declining enrollment were cited as reasons for the mergers.

Robinson told the board Wednesday the warranty for the roofs of the middle schools and five of the seven primary schools will expire in 2015 or 2016. He said they already have expired for L.B. Millsop and Wellsburg primary schools, though the newer roof over Wellsburg Primary’s gym won’t expire until 2033.

Asked if there are concerns about the condition of the existing schools, Kidder-Wilkerson said the district’s staff has worked hard to maintain them but money spent for their maintenance could be better spent on students’ education.

Robinson said the cost for maintenance and utilities would naturally be less with fewer buildings.

He presented the school district’s utility costs for the last fiscal year. It spent about $41,987 to heat the seven primary schools, about $29,292 for water there and about $158,752 for their electricity.

The board has discussed the possibility of razing the old middle schools after the new one is built to prevent them from becoming an eyesore if they sit unused.

Board member Chad Haught on Wednesday suggested doing a title search first to determine if there are any stipulations from previous owners.

When Bethany Primary School was closed, its ownership reverted back to Bethany College, which uses it for its education department.

(Scott can be contacted at wscott@heraldstaronline.com)