Time for 'huge decision' on new high school in Monticello

Time for 'huge decision' on new high school in Monticello

MONTICELLO — In his 11 years on the Monticello school board, Jim Dahl has seen some big votes — from budget cuts to the hiring of a superintendent. But what will be under consideration tonight might be the biggest yet.

"It will be a very important meeting," Dahl said.

The school board will consider asking voters on Nov. 4 to approve $40 million to fund construction of a new high school. The district may also ask for implementation of a county-wide school facilities sales tax, which would also need voter approval. The board has said the estimated $400,000 the sales tax would bring in annually could reduce the impact of the bond issue by about 15 cents on local tax rates.

"In the history of the district, I think it's a huge meeting, a huge decision," said Superintendent Vic Zimmerman.

The session will begin at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 14 in the high school media center. As with all meetings, public comment will be on the agenda.

"We encourage that," said Dahl, the current board president. "We take what community members say seriously. We're community members ourselves so take those comments seriously."

Fellow board member Chris Carr went a step further, saying public support is an essential element in answering the facilities question.

"If we move to put these questions on the November ballot, it would be because the entire board firmly believes it is the right thing to do for our school district and for our community. We will not move in that direction otherwise," Carr said.

At issue is whether the district should construct a new high school, estimated to cost about $35 million. The remainder of the bond would be used to convert the current high school into a districtwide elementary school. Lincoln and White Heath elementary schools would then be closed.

Board members began studying facilities nearly three years ago, noting that four of the district's five structures have original build dates between 1894 and 1923. The middle school was constructed in 2003. Community input was sought through public meetings in the fall of 2012, followed by community engagement a year later and the Sage Voices effort this spring, which used four meetings to gauge community input.

At those meetings, the majority favored the idea of a new high school, preferably located near the current one.

Costs to taxpayers were also estimated at those meetings. A worst-case scenario of a 70-cent addition to tax rates to pay for construction would result in an increase of $420 annually for the owner of a $200,000 home. That would shrink to $325 to $335 if the sales tax is also approved.

If the issues are placed on the ballot, the district will have less than three months to further educate voters.

"We will need to distribute a lot of information that requires another phase of community engagement," he said.

Turnout at public meetings has been as high as 200 and as low as 50, but Zimmerman said everyone will get their chance to speak if the facilities questions go on the ballot.

"Like I've said from the beginning, even if no one attends any meetings, or a thousand people attend every meeting, on Nov. 4 everyone gets to go in and vote," he said.

If approved, the district would then start working on building design and site acquisition. If it is voted down, the district can regroup and try a similar ballot question again, or take a step back and see if a remodel of the existing high school is a better option.

No matter what decision is made, Carr believes the research has been beneficial.

"Our hope from the beginning was to end up with a long-range plan for our facilities. I believe that the superintendent's, school board's and Sage Voices' efforts put into this study, up to this point in time, will prove beneficial no matter the decision and/or final outcome," she said.

Steve Hoffman is editor of the Piatt County Journal-Republican, a News-Gazette community newspaper. For more, visit journal-republican.com.

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