Hillsboro Begins Discussion On New Main Building

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Members of the Hillsboro School Board began a discussion that could lead to a $20 million high school building project that would replace the old main building and connect a new one to existing campus buildings while not raising the district tax rate.

After hearing presentations about the scope of the project from district maintenance director Fred Butler, funding scenarios from Superintendent David Powell, and credentials for architectural work from Hurst-Rosche of Hillsboro, the board hired the local engineering firm for a potential high school building project during a special meeting on Tuesday, March 23, in the junior high cafeteria.

Superintendent David Powell called the plan "a good starting point for discussion" and a "much smaller and less expensive plan" than the one that was last presented to the voters.

Butler said buildings in the district are caught up on remodeling plans–except the old main building on the high school campus.

He suggested replacing the old main building with 70,000 square feet of new construction that would connect to the gym and library buildings.

"I still see this as a two-story building, but that is ultimately up to how the architects see it," Butler said.

Estimating a $20 million project cost, Powell said the district tax rate "should stay level or be reduced. I can say that with absolute confidence now," about a $20 million project.

That prediction is based on using a combination of  bonds funded by the school facility safety sales tax and general obligation property tax bonds, and bond rates predicted by district bond agent Stifel.

"Because of some existing debt that is scheduled to be retired in the next three years, we could finance this project and keep the same tax rate, or maybe even reduce the rate from its current level," Powell said.

Bond repayment would use half of the anticipated sales tax revenue for 25 years, and 15-or 20-year repayment of general obligation bonds paid by property taxes.

"There are a lot of moving parts to this," Powell said of putting together funding predictions.  One of those is the assessed value of Coffeen Power Station; the superintendent's estimate is based on a "significant drop" after the negotiated decrease in power plant EAV.

Voters would get a chance to approve the general obligation bonds in a referendum in either the spring or fall of 2022.

Before the presentation from Hurst-Rosche, Powell was direct in pointing out that the law does not allow taking "bids" from architects regarding costs; those firms may only be chosen based on qualifications.  He also said he recommends Hurst-Rosche.

Firm President Jim Roth said Hillsboro resident Jeremy Connor would be the principal for the project, and Tim Downen, also of Hillsboro, would be the lead architect.  Mark Ritter of Ramsey will be the lead mechanical-electrical-plumbing engineer.

"This would very much be a high-priority project for our firm," Connor said.  "I went to school here, and my kids go to school here."

Connor said Hurst-Rosche was founded in Hillsboro in 1937 and has been serving educational clients since 1990.

"We consider ourselves 'meat and potato' architects," Downen said.  "We do a lot of work with rural districts where budget is always a priority."

He presented slides on work that Hurst-Rosche had done, including a 720-seat school auditorium, an administrative addition in the Coulterville School District, a new connecting link between buildings in the Ramsey School District, and new high schools in the Waterloo School District, Marion School District and Jerseyville School District, and new elementary schools in Grafton and Adams.  Ritter has also worked on additions and renovations in Heyworth and Athens.  Hurst-Rosche is currently working on school projects in East St. Louis and Johnson City.

Costs for Hurst-Rosche services would begin with the Capitol Development Board fee structure, with adjustments for scope and complexity.

Connor said the firm will search for available grants, such as for hazard mitigation, storm shelters, and energy conservation through power providers.

Board President Barbara Adams recognized audience member Terri Mackey, who asked how the project began.  Adams said it began in response to the ongoing need for high school facilities.

"I think last time, people wanted local engineers," board member Dan Wilson said.

The motion to engage Hurst-Rosche passed 5-2 with board members Earl Meier, Dan Wilson, Nathan Kirby, Matt Lentz and Barbara Adams voting in favor and Bryce Rupert and Dan Tester voting against.

Rupert voiced hesitation about hiring an architectural firm on the eve of a school board election which may result in a new direction for the board, and Tester said he would prefer to interview more than one architectural firm before making a decision.  Both were the lone votes in favor of tabling the motion to engage Hurst-Rosche, which failed 2-5.

The board took no action on a request by Principal Patti Heyen to use Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to hire a social worker/counselor at the high school.

The estimated cost of the project is "one certified staff member," Superintendent  Powell said, adding that he supported the plan, but a decision did not need to be made at the special meeting.  The board currently has a guidance counselor position open, and the second will take on more social worker duties.

"The reason for these funds is to prevent, prepare for, and respond to COVID-19," the principal said, noting that those criteria include providing for the mental health of students.  "We have students with socioeconomic needs, that if not caused by COVID, have been exacerbated by it."

Teachers Amber Connor and Mark Garmon, Assistant Principal Andy Stritzel, and psychologist Amanda Cunningham presented supporting arguments for the request.

"Kids are coming to school with more and more baggage and issues, and we are having a more and more difficult time getting them mentally ready for school," Stritzel said.  "We're treating symptoms and not the issues.”

Cunningham said she has moved her office to take on responsibilities at the high school outside of her job description, and Connor said that while teachers happily take on students' out-of-classroom needs, "we are not trained counselors."

"We have the data to show there is a need, but we do not have the resources," Cunningham said.

Garmon said his students have reported needing "more personalized attention" and "additional individual support" regarding college prep.

Summer school for high school students will be from 8 a.m. to 12 noon Monday through Friday June 7 through July 2, the board learned.  Transportation, breakfast and lunch, and performance incentives will be provided.

Classes will be offered by the Illinois Virtual School, and staff members will be present to provide instructional and technical assistance, and to help students stay focused.

In-person attendance is required every day for a wide range of course content available.  Students will select their own subjects and number of courses, and will be able to earn half credit for each course completed.  Students may also choose to enroll in independent study to be completed after July 2. The principal hopes that as many as 25 students will choose to participate.

Graduation this year will be a drive-in theater style like last year, the board decided by consensus after a request from the high school principal, who said she has been fielding daily requests about the ceremony.

Currently 127 seniors are on track to graduate, and socially-distanced capacity at Sawyer Field is 700.

"Even if the state allows 1,000 people, that will not cover the tickets we give to our kids," Heyen said.

After a closed session, the board hired Ashley Rose as high school physical education teacher, and approved the resignation of Kelly Kenny as high school cheerleading coach.

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