2015-03-03 / News

Crowd Hears Plan for New Walton Elementary School

Robert A. Cairns

This drawing shows a proposed new Walton elementary school, rendered in orange in the bottom center, juxtaposed on the site of the current high school and middle school campus.This drawing shows a proposed new Walton elementary school, rendered in orange in the bottom center, juxtaposed on the site of the current high school and middle school campus.WALTON — Approximately 100 people gathered in the Walton High School cafeteria on Thursday, Feb. 26 to hear about the proposal to close Walton’s Townsend Elementary School and build a new elementary school on the Stockton Avenue campus that is already home to the high school and middle school.

Members of the board of education and the school administration talked about the plan, assisted by architect Scott Duell. School District Superintendent Roger Clough told the crowd that the plan is not complete. “This is a preliminary scope of the work,” he said.

School board Vice President James Hoyt said discussions about Townsend School are not new. “For some time, the school board has been struggling with what to do with our Townsend School,” he said. He said the school was built in 1935 and has had “band aid” repairs, since.

Hoyt said the building is not energy efficient, the layout is no longer suited to education and that the addition of computer equipment to a school not built for it has presented challenges. He also said the mechanical equipment at the building is outdated and that there has been a large increase in traffic from the days when most students walked to school or were transported on buses.

Traffic at the school has been an issue for village leaders, as well, and Hoyt echoed their concerns. “My fear is that something is going to happen one of these days with a kid stepping out in front of a car,” he said.

Hoyt also noted that the school was damaged by floods in 1996 and 2006. “We’re concerned when the next one’s going to happen,” he said.

Hoyt said the board discussed moving the school after both of those floods, but that the idea was pushed aside by more pressing issues, such as cuts in state aid, “We’ve started and stopped a couple times, trying to make plans,” he said.

Hoyt then reiterated the school board’s three options, as outlined in last week’s Reporter, including doing nothing, renovating and attempting to floodproof the existing school, or building a new one. He said the board had considered moving equipment out of the basement and building a flood wall, but chose not to pursue that course. “That would direct water to our neighbors, which is not ideal, either,” he said.

While the board has chosen to propose a new school, Hoyt said the decision has not been made. “This isn’t finalized, yet,” he said. “The board has not voted, yet, to put it in the vote in May.” He said the board “is open to all suggestions,” and said drawings presented that night are “the first draft of it.”

Hoyt said moving the school would eliminate the need to pay flood insurance premiums and would allow all of the school’s buildings to take advantage of cheap fuel from the village of Walton’s proposed bio gas project, which will generate methane gas from dairy waste. He also said the project can be done with no increase in property taxes.

“Really, the fundamental reason is for the education of our kids,” Hoyt concluded.

Duell said building a new school presents “a unique opportunity to provide the latest in design and layout.” He said the building would contain new insulating materials and an integration of technology that is not possible in the current building. He showed conceptual drawings which show the new school placed adjacent to the high school, in the area of a parking lot that exists between the school and the tennis courts. The drawings showed expanded parking in several areas, including the area between the school buildings and Stockton Avenue. Duell said there are 309 parking spaces in the design, compared to a combined 255 spaces at all of the current school buildings.

A bus loop would discharge students at the entrance to the new building. The plans call for moving the wood shop and building a new library. The addition would have two stories.

Duell said the estimated cost of the project is $23,500,000 but warned, “That number isn’t final, yet.”

School Business Manager Greg Dale addressed the financial aspect of the project.

Dale said a combination of state aid and long-term bonds would pay for the project. He estimated that the debt service on the project would be $400,000 per year, which is the same as an expiring bond from a previous project. “We’re very confident that we’ll be able to pay for this,” he said. “We can pay for it without raising your taxes.”

He said the project is being designed to get the maximum possible state aid. “There’s a very strict set of rules about what they’ll fund and what they will not fund,” he said.

If voters do not approve the project this year, Dale said, they will get a reduction in taxes. He said, however, that taxes would have to be increased in the future when the Townsend School is no longer viable. “If you vote this project down, your taxes will go down,” he said. “The problem with that is, we ignore the problems.”

If the project goes to public vote, that vote will take place on May 19, along with the school budget vote and board elections.

With the presentation complete, the floor was opened to questions from the audience.

One woman questioned the wisdom of taking on a large project when the budget is not yet set.

School board President Judy Breese said the board can’t complete its budget until the state budget, and the school aid contained within, are approved. “That is hog-tying us in terms of putting the budget together,” she said. She said all school districts have the same problem.

Dale said the district is in a better financial position than it was a year ago. He explained that, when state aid was cut, the district made up the difference by spending its fund balances. When those balances ran out, he said, the district made tough choices. “Last year was ugly. It was painful,” he said.

Now, he said, the district is positioned to operate within the state-imposed tax cap for the next several years.

Another resident asked if the board had considered another location for construction, to help maintain the separate identity of the elementary school. Clough responded that another site was not considered because it would require land acquisition.

There was no solid answer given to questions about the future of the existing Townsend School building.

Clough said he had talked to Walton Mayor Ed Snow and members of the Walton Flood Commission about possible uses for the building, including possible development as senior citizen housing.

Building and Grounds Superintendent Andy Jackson said part of the old school property might be developed to enhance the flood plain for the adjacent East Brook. “This is going to help the area around Townsend School,” he said. He also said the school would retain and use the athletic fields on the Townsend School property.

Hoyt said the old school building would present “opportunities” for a developer.

Village resident Todd Ogden said he assumed the old school would have to be torn down. He cited the example of Sidney, where a former school was turned into a civic center. He said taxes in the Sidney district are two-to-three times as high as those in Walton. “We do not want a civic center over there. It’s going to cost money,” he said.

Ogden also noted that the former Delaware County Countryside Care Center building and the A.L. Kellogg school building have gone vacant for years. He said the district must plan on demolishing the old building and know what it would cost to do that.

Dale said the board does not want to do that. “Their last priority is to tear this building down,” he said. “They would like to find another use for it.”

Breese agreed. “I would like it to be a viable entity,” she said. “We’re investigating everything. No one is ignoring any of the problems that could be looming.”

Walton resident Joyce Bishop asked how many classrooms the new school would have, and how that number compares to the current school.

Duell said the new school would have 29 classrooms, though no one seemed to know how many classrooms exist in the current building.

“How many more teachers are you going to lay off?” Bishop asked. “That’s your plan.”

“That’s not in the plan,” Clough replied. “That was never in the plan.”

In response to another audience question, Dale said it would cost approximately $17 million to upgrade the current building and attempt flood mitigation, but that there would be no guarantees that floods would not damage it again.

School officials said there will be more public meetings as the process moves forward.

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