On Tuesday evening, roughly 20 community members, many of them staff members of Beatrice Public Schools or parents of the students, met with school board members and administration at Classic’s to discuss concerns with outdated district buildings, and potential purchase options for a new preschool through fifth grade building.
Superintendent Jason Alexander reiterated what he’s said in previous school board meetings, that Beatrice Community Preschool and Lincoln, Stoddard and Paddock Lane elementary schools all have fire code violations, health code violations, ADA compliance issues, and security and surveillance issues.
In his presentation, Alexander showed pipes being held up with string, vents propped open with boards, bullet holes in one school’s windows, asbestos wrapped pipes, uncovered wires and places where the structures are decaying.
School board member Eric Book told attendees that he was against new buildings, voting against the two bond issues in 2015 and 2016. He said he has since toured these buildings, and as a parent and former marine, he’s concerned with the safety, health and comfort of students in those buildings.
“These schools were built in the 50s, and it was a different world then,” Book said. “There’s a lot of evil in the world today. God forbid something were to happen, and where are these children going to go? We have classes where they have glass from floor to ceiling. If someone wanted to get into those classrooms, there’d be no problem. Security is something that’s number one for me, and I think a new facility absolutely would give that. 21st century technology and safety is very important.”
Creating a single-site facility on the 93-acres of the district’s land by Beatrice High School, Alexander said, would create numerous efficiency improvements in education, including teacher collaboration, having an administrative presence at all times, enhanced safety and security, creating a more inclusive environment and reducing facility and operating costs.
“In eliminating duplications of services, we become more efficient in every sector that we’re talking about,” Alexander said. “We save money, and it helps pay for the building. Now, that does not mean people are going to lose their jobs. We’ve been asked that question. Especially when it comes to our teachers, and here’s the reason why. Folks, we’re going to have 800-1,000 elementary students for a long time.”
The school board has previously approved Johnson Controls to create a facility business plan outlining preliminary development and design ideas, and do a cost analysis for different purchase options.
Alexander said the building is estimated to be 120,000 square foot, and cost roughly $40 million. He said some payment options include having bonds voted on by the public, doing a lease purchase or lease/lease buy back, and both public and private partnerships.
Alexander said the district would issue a 10-cent or 15-cent bond. He illustrated for a house valuated at $100,000, it would cost the homeowner $150 or $450, annually. For a 1,000-acre farm valuated at $5.35 million, that would cost $5,350 annually for a 10-cent bond.
“That’s just an average…In essence, when we start talking about a $100,000 home or $300,000 home, we’re talking about a few cents a day. Not even the cost of a cup of coffee,” Alexander said. “Now, when you get into a 500-acre farm, that changes a little bit, $10.99 a day. When you get into an over 1,000-acre farm, it’s over $20 a day.”
With a lease purchase, Alexander said the district would amortize it out in four different leases over 28 years. He said this is due to state statue, which states that public entities can only lease purchase for seven years at a time.
“We would have four leases of seven years stacked up on top of each other to create the 28-year payment period to pay off the building…Currently in the state of Nebraska, we have a $1.05 property tax levy cap. So that means our levy cannot be more than $1.05. Now, there’s some things that are outside of a levy, the Quality Capital Purpose Undertaking Fund or QCPUF, that we can make repairs to buildings on, which has been accessed before. It’s limited, but it doesn’t count against your $1.05.”
Alexander said the district can figure their operating costs from the general fund, and budget to move roughly ten cents to the special building fund. He said that ten cents will generate $1.3 million on their current valuations, which coupled with the energy, operational and personnel savings of a new building would cover the lease payment every year.
A lease/lease buy-back Alexander said is very similar, except the district enters into a procurement lease with the contractor of the building to be paid back over 25-35 years. He said after that period, the district would own a building with 75% life expectancy left.
“They own it. We create the preventative maintenance agreement, and we can make that whatever we want. As difficult or as easy, as expensive or less expensive, as we want,” Alexander explained. “So if we want them to take care of the maintenance of the lights, HVAC and the energy and utility efficiency, we build that into the contract and we pay for it.”
Alexander said in reality, the district needs a new building for Beatrice Middle School as well, which is facing similar issues to what he addressed with the elementary buildings. He said he recognized that tax payers cannot afford paying for both an elementary and middle school building, and that taxes are high enough in the state already.
“We have taken plans to our state officials time and time and time again to come up with solutions to that, and time and time and time again, our elected officials tell us we can’t increase any taxes anyway, we can’t come up with other sources of revenue,” Alexander said. “And that’s what our state needs, because we’re too reliant on property. Look around us. South Dakota came up with a solution: tourism. Wyoming has oil and gas…There’s solutions out there, we just have to be willing as elected officials to take a look and keep an open mind.”
Alexander said the district has access to $2.3 million of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief or ESSER III federal funding that can be applied towards the cost of this project, in addition to an unknown amount of ESSER IV funds in the future. He said congress is also in the process of approving a congressional infrastructure bill that will include funding for education post COVID-19 pandemic.
“I know right now we have $2.3 million, but literally in five months’ time, we could have double that amount to put towards the cost of the project. So our $40 million project comes down, which decreases our need for a lease,” Alexander said.
Board member Erin Chadwick current low interest rates make it attractive for the district to do any of these purchase options, but that there is a challenge at the state level for doing a lease purchase.
“Our state legislature is trying to remove this as a tool for districts to utilize,” Chadwick said. “For a lot of districts, that’s really devastating, and for us, that could cause some complications in choosing an option for building something, outside of a bond issue. Last year, it was LB523 that they attempted to pass. It did not go through, but it sounds like this year, they’re going to reintroduce that bill, and the likelihood it passes is pretty great.”
Alexander said the school board has agreed to cover a new PK-5 building with their budgeting process, but that the community in turn will have to help fund a new middle school building. He thanked the community for attending the discussion, admitting that these topics aren’t easy to talk about, but that it’s necessary to come up with a solution.
“People are going to give us a million reasons why we should not do this, but I’m going to tell you, from the bottom of my heart, there’s 1,000 of them why we should,” Alexander said. “They show up in our buildings every day, and we feed them food that’s not healthy, and we put them in scenarios that are not good for them, and it’s time to quit kicking the can down the road and do something about it.”
Alexander said there’s an additional purchase option the district is exploring, and that additional conversations need to take place before having the school board to vote on a solution by December.
“Best case scenario, we get something on the table in a December or January timeframe, and we’ve got all the financing pieces figured out, we’ve got the cost analysis and everything figured out,” Alexander said. “And we’re ready to then start looking at architects and building design, which really shouldn’t take that long, we just all have to come to an agreement…Once we get that done in an architectural blueprint format, we’re ready to roll. Those things all have to be decided yet.”
The district is preparing a frequently asked questions page from the community meetings, which will be available at beatricepublicschools.org
A full live stream of the community meeting can be found at bit.ly/38KuEHH