ANDERSON – Anderson Community Schools is asking taxpayers to pay $50 million over 19 years for a sweeping facilities improvement program that would touch each of the district’s operational school buildings except for COMPASS.
The additional cost to taxpayers for the FIRST — Facilities Innovation Results Safety Transformation — program, based on a median market value home of $81,700 with an assessed net value of $20,855, would be about $75 a year, or about $6.23 a month, according to district calculations.
According to district calculations, the current total annual tax bill for a home with a $75,000 market value would go from $261.15 to $320.27, a difference of $59.12.
“You have to cut back on one coffee or Ricker’s pop a week,” quipped ACS Superintendent Terry Thompson. “I wanted to make sure we kept everything to a minimum.”
He revealed the cost of the program, which until now was estimated between $40 million and $60 million, to the ACS board of trustees on Tuesday. Thompson rolled out the program in January and has spent the past several months meeting with more than 20 stakeholder groups, from Madison County Realtors to UAW retirees, to solicit support.
“When we first introduced it, we gave the vision,” he said. “The initial plan has changed drastically.”
“I want anybody and everybody to get online and know what the exact impact is,” Thompson said. “We believe our calculator system is so unique.”
However, Thompson said he’s not yet compiled preliminary line item budgets but will release them in a few months as soon as they are available.
If the referendum passes in May 2018, Thompson predicted ground could be broken on the projects, which are expected to touch each operating school building except COMPASS, by August 2018 with the entire program completed by the end of December 2019.
The FIRST program includes the development of a preschool through elementary complex at Eastside Elementary/Eastside Intermediate School; the addition of a wing and the reopening of the pool at Highland Middle School; and the reconfiguration of arts and athletics amenities and addition of an Innovation Center at Anderson High School.
Thompson has said the FIRST program was developed with student and staff health, academic achievement, property values, and community pride and tradition in mind. The program also is intended to deal with population pressure based on current enrollments, he said.
Though he has on occasion been accused of not being transparent by revealing the cost sooner, Thompson pointed out he is sharing the cost more than a year ahead of a referendum, which he said is rare. Thompson said he also was apprehensive about sharing the final cost until he was able to better understand the impact on taxpayers.
“One of the objectives we’ve had all along is to be transparent,” he said.
Statistically, the higher you go above 50 cents per $100 of assessed value, the less likely a bond referendum is to be passed, Thompson said. That’s why he worked hard to keep the combined rate at about 25 cents per $100 of assessed value for the combined FIRST program and about 11 cents per $100 of assessed value for the additional $1.8 million operations bond he’s seeking, for a total of about 36 cents.
Every spring and summer, the district makes facility improvements paid for through the capital fund, Thompson said. But the needs of the district far exceed the fund’s budget.
“Every one of our buildings is booming with population and not enough space for programs for our students,” he said. “We have more students than we can handle who want to do culinary.”
Thompson acknowledged that any addition to the tax burden for some property owners may seem too much, but the future cost to the community is even higher, he said.
“It’s now or never. If we don’t do something in the next eight to 10 years, it will have devastating results,” he said.
The district, Thompson said, is in a time crunch because of improvements that simply can’t wait, including the roofs on the D26 Career Center and Edgewood Elementary School, where buckets have to be put out to catch rainwater during storms.
“There are a lot of issues, but we’re trying to focus here on the quality of the buildings,” he said.
Thompson said he has tried unsuccessfully to find other ways, including tax increment financing, to fund the district’s facility needs.
“We are as lean as we can be. We can’t cut any more than this,” he said.
Chief Operating Officer and Chief Financial Officer Kevin Brown said he and other district officials used a lengthy process of determining which other school districts have had recent referenda and whether they passed.
“We looked at our tax rate and the sensitivity to it that our community has,” he told the board.
Anderson resident Jon Clemons, who no longer has school-age children, said he’s not sure $50 million is enough since it represents only about one-half of the district’s annual budget.
“I don’t think that is enough to do what really needs to be done,” he said. “Ten years from now, we might be heading into another referendum.”
ACS board member Holly Renz, one of only two who previously have publicly expressed support for the bond, said she hadn’t heard anything that changed her mind.
“I think it’s very reasonable. I’m totally in support of the referendum. It’s a must,” she said.