The Peru School Board will convene a work session on Tuesday as they head toward making a decision about consolidating junior and senior high classes into a single building and making adjustments to the programs offered.
“We need to make a decision one way or the other,” Superintendent Sam Watkins told the board during their meeting earlier this week.
It’s not a new topic.
Watkins asked the board earlier this year to begin considering options to address concerns not only what to do with an aging junior high school that is badly in need of updates and repairs, but also projected budget problems exacerbated by loss of students and an ongoing “constriction” of course offerings that is expected to continue.
Those concerns were laid out for the board in February by the former superintendent Thomas McKaig, who headed up a study group that made the building-consolidation recommendation.
A sheet of recommendations that McKaig presented to board members said that a renovation and addition project at the high school, possibly paid for through a bond sale of up to $6 million (and perhaps more for two separate projects), could “help ameliorate the concerns related to housing grades 7 through 12 in one building.”
“The debt service on the bonds that would be issued can be structured in such a way that the current tax rate does not have to be increased,” the sheet said.
McKaig’s presentation walked board members through several budgeting challenges he is currently aware of and sees coming at them in the near future. Those include a shrinking student population and the loss of students (and their associated funding) to other districts and schools through parent choice and other mechanisms.
“You are losing the transfer game,” he told members.
An improved building at the high school, coupled with action on the group’s other recommendations that included developing a plan to address declining enrollment, entering into agreements for shared services with neighboring corporations and sharing staff, could help alleviate those issues, McKaig suggested.
Watkins said at Tuesday’s board meeting that the original timeline he had set for making a decision about possible changes was not overly “aggressive” and hadn’t been changed much by disruptions to other school business caused by the pandemic.
“We are still on that timeline,” he said.
He said he was hopeful that a decision could be made at the board’s August meeting and presented what he thought were three options.
Those included “continuing current 7-12 programming” with no building consolidation, continue the programming “but consolidate operations,” or consolidate buildings. The second option, according to a document provided to the board would see shared teachers under a single administrative team operating in two buildings.
Watkins said there is no wrong option of those listed but said he believed there is a “more right decision”
“We are heading toward me making a recommendation,” he said.
Board member Chris Wolfe asked, given the challenges already posed by 2020, if waiting might be prudent.
Watkins told the Tribune on Thursday that waiting, or taking no action, could see the need to raise taxes.
That, he said, is because the school corporation is retiring some debt this year and if they moved now on issuing new bonds to help fund renovations – either at both schools or to make ready for coming consolidation – residents would not see a change to their taxes.
Because of the way state law requires local tax rates to be structured, he said, the situation could be different if they pay off that debt and wait a full year to issue bonds for a project.
“If I let that rate go off,” he said, “we get less money.”
And the corporation would then be in a position of asking for a referendum to help fund the project.
That means that even if the board decides to keep the buildings and students separate, Watkins would like to see them headed toward approving the issuance of new bonds to begin upgrades to the buildings, all of which he said are badly needed.
“We need to bond regardless,” he said.