New school on table at Turner
TOWN OF BELOIT An ad hoc committee will hear the latest about plans for a new $28 million Turner High School at a meeting Jan. 8, a week before the school board likely will vote on whether to seek an April referendum for the project.
The Turner School District has talked for years about building a new high school, and a conceptual design has been drawn for a 600-student school on property the district bought in 2011 behind the current high school.
The 15 members of the ad hoc committee will give feedback on whether they have enough information and if they think the community would support the project, Superintendent Dennis McCarthy said.
The school board meets Monday, Jan. 14, and could hold a special meeting Tuesday, Jan. 15, to vote on a resolution for a spring referendum.
A decision must be made by mid-January to get the referendum on the April ballot.
"The only thing I've said to the board that I feel is important is that it has to be a unified 7-0 decision, and the board agrees with that," McCarthy said.
The tax impact of the project is estimated to be an extra $144 per $100,000 of property valuation annually over 20 years. The district would take out three loans, one each year starting in 2013, with an average interest rate of 3.46 percent.
Brad Boll, director of business services, estimates the additional operating costs—maintenance and kitchen staff, supplies and utilities—of a new high school would total about $500,000. Those costs would be covered in the general operating budget, he said.
A new high school would allow the existing middle and high schools to serve grades three through eight. Townview Elementary would become an early childhood center, while Powers Elementary would serve first and second grades.
Each elementary grade now has four classes—called a four-track system—while there are five classes per grade in the middle school. The high school is growing toward a five-track system.
Space does not allow the elementary grades to expand to a five-track system, but if the new high school is approved, the district would have the capacity to grow to a six-track system, serving 150 students per grade.
The high school now has 444 students.
District officials have said the main purpose of the construction would be to allow more open enrollment students into the school district. Administrators also hope to
see growth within district boundaries as the economy rebounds.
No matter which district in the state you talk to, they will tell you: "If you are flat in enrollment or you are in declining, you are in trouble," McCarthy said.
It's easy to find districts struggling with declining enrollments.
"It's a killer for them," he said. "They have no choice—it's people and programs, that's what you have to cut."
"What we consciously decided to do is manage open enrollment in a way that keeps us fiscally able to do the things that we'd like to do in this district without cutting people or programs," he said.
Through attrition, the district cut the assistant superintendent and one librarian but has cut no teachers in recent years, he said.
The district has held the property tax levy at $4.83 million the last four years. It had the ability to raise the levy but didn't need to because of open enrollment revenue, he said.
The district has more than 200 students on an open enrollment waiting list for this year, McCarthy said.
More than 20 percent of Turner students this year are from outside the school district. The district accepted about 300 students from other districts, while about 100 Turner district students open enrolled out to other schools.
The district's net gain has steadily increased from 30 students in 2007-08.
Each student from outside the district brings about $6,500 in state aid outside the revenue cap. Through open enrollment, the district has received $3.55 million over the last three years.
When the district gets beyond filling classes that are under capacity and has to hire another teacher and buy more supplies for a new classroom, administrators say the open enrollment aid more than covers the costs.
Some residents question a move to bring in so many students from other districts.
Residents Dave Sterna and Dave Townsend have been talking with a handful of other concerned residents about the proposal and have not been satisfied with the district's data and justification for the project, Sterna said.
Sterna said he thinks it's wrong to steal students from other districts.
"It doesn't feel like a very neighborly thing to do, especially if other districts are challenged with their budgets. It takes students and leaves their facilities under capacity," he said.
Townsend, a former school board member and former Beloit Town Board member, shares Sterna's worries.
"My personal concern—and I think it's the concern of a lot of people—is justifying a new building for the Turner district, in this case a new high school, based on open enrollment numbers," he said. "If open enrollment numbers were minimized, there would be no need for a new school."
To say open enrollment is not neighborly is "ridiculous," McCarthy said.
"In this day and age, like most things globally, it's competition that's out there, and it's not going away," he said. "All you have to do is listen to the governor talk about additional choices that may be presented to families.
"You can either sit there and feel sorry for yourself as a district, or you have to find ways to get better at what we do."