By ROBERT CONNELLY
Austintown School District officials have said over the past few months it would be cheaper to build a new high school rather than renovate, but some residents question the need to replace a building that is 50 years old.
The board of education voted in January to put a 4.1-mill bond issue on the May 6 ballot to raise funds to build a new Fitch High School. The state has awarded the district $31 million, 47 percent, of the estimated $68 million project.
The other $46 million would be raised through the bond and includes a Locally Funded Initiative, $9 million, to pay for renovations to the gym, auditorium, football stadium, and classrooms by the auditorium. The initiative goes strictly to renovation of items not covered by the state’s guidelines, making the district pay for those improvements to bring those parts of the high school up to current building-code standards.
The total cost of the project is $77 million.
Levy committee chairwomen Lori Gavalier and Kim Smrek hosted two town-hall meetings in Fitch’s auditorium, March 11 and April 3. Both meetings featured an informational section and a question-and-answer segment from a “panel of experts.” Those panels were not the same at both meetings, but the question-and-answer section was more open due to fewer attendees at the second meeting.
Gavalier and Smrek fielded questions from residents about concerns related to board of education members and district administrators. “We have been trying to convey that we are voting on the building,” Gavalier said.
She also said she has met with people opposed to the bond. “It seems we end up very in agreement that the numbers speak for themselves economically.”
Superintendent Vincent Colaluca said there will not be a third town-hall meeting, and they are beginning to look at mass mailings and phone calls to residents.
During the campaign for the issue for a new Fitch, the only funds available have been those raised by the Austintown Levy Committee and volunteers. “If we had a lot of money, we would do big [campaigns],” Colaluca said.
The 37-year bond acts as a loan and will cost a resident with a home value of $100,000 about $144 a year.
Austintown residents are still paying off the bonds for the building of Austintown Middle School and Austintown Elementary and Intermediate schools. AMS is nine years into its 2.9-mill bond for 27 years, while the bond for AES and AIS is three years into a 2.4-mill bond over 37 years. An added 0.5 mill bond to the AMS bond goes toward maintenance upkeep at newly built buildings, so Fitch would have upkeep paid for by taxpayers.
The OFFC mandates that anyone building a new structure using its funds must come up with a maintenance plan, a concern of residents at town-hall meetings.
Residents at the forums raised the issue of renovating versus building new. Gavalier said the cost to renovate would be more than $37 million, including about $3.8 million in trailer fees, about 58, to house the students during the building renovations.
The Ohio Facilities Construction Commission toured Fitch in January 2013, however, and rated the school 73 on a 100-point scale. Any rating over 66, the OFCC recommends to build new instead of renovate. Last summer, the OFCC announced it had awarded Fitch 47 percent, or $31 million, toward the total cost.
Colaluca and district officials told the crowd at the April 3 town-hall meeting that the district did not have the funds to place the ballot on a special ballot in August if it fails to pass May 6. The reason is because the district can only use funds raised by the levy committee to place it on the ballot, a $30,000 expense, and cannot use general fund money. The district has a deadline of May 7, the day after the election, to put the bond on the special Aug. 5 ballot.
If the bond fails to pass before August’s special election, the state funds go into a lapse phase. That means they no longer will be guaranteed to Austintown, and Gavalier said it would go to the next school on the state’s list.