Freeport Area School Board considers $66 million high school overhaul, yearly tax hikes to pay for it

Updates to Freeport Area High School that school officials call long overdue are planned as part of a $66 million renovation project.

The project is part of a five-year plan that still must be approved by the school board.

Last month, the board heard presentations from J. Greer Hayden of the architectural firm HHSDR regarding the renovations. The board also heard a presentation on financing from Jamie Doyle of PFM Financial Advisors.

The high school was built in 1960. Although there were additions built in 1967 and 1987, much of the building is unchanged since it was built, according to Superintendent Ian Magness and school board President Adam Toncini.

The renovations package being considered, according to Magness, includes a new auditorium; a new multimedia center; a new performing arts center; a new cafeteria; a new gymnasium; a new band room; a new chorus room; central air conditioning throughout the building; every classroom updated with new lighting, fixtures, wiring and floors; and new boilers to replace those that were installed when the school was built 62 years ago.

“The (building’s) footprint would change slightly, but most of it is within the current footprint,” Magness said.

He said the performing arts center would extend the front of the high school slightly while the new cafeteria would do the same on the opposite end of the building.

“We’re getting to the point where we are almost on borrowed time,” Toncini said of the high school. “The can has been kicked down the road for so long, and now it’s all coming at a time when inflation is high.”

The phased plan would start with the replacement of the boilers and upgrading to central air conditioning. That would be paid for with $1.3 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds and money from the district’s capital reserve fund, which is at $1.2 million, according to business manager Brad Walker.

At the same time, Walker has projected the district, which is facing a $1 million operating deficit in 2022-23, also will face deficits for the following three school years, that could go as high as $1.6 million.

But deficits are something Freeport has wrestled with before, operating under one for the past four school years.

Board members acknowledged that to maintain Freeport Area’s quality of education, the taxpayers likely will pay more in the future.

Toncini said the idea would be to do that incrementally through small tax increases at or under the state’s taxing index for school districts in order to keep up with revenue needs. He said that is a better option than a big one-time tax increase the voters would have to approve through a referendum.

“The taxpayers are going to have to step up, there’s no doubt about it,” board member Gary Risch Jr. said.

But he said he still believes there is money out there to help with the project that the district can go after by seeking help from legislators in the region.

“We work with the taxpayers,” board member John Haven said. “Somehow, we have to talk to the taxpayers about this.”

Walker said that after the initial phases of the project, the board might have to incur debt to finance the project.

“We’re trying to avoid going to a bond issue for as long as possible,” he said, noting that is why the proposed project would be phased in over several years.

Board member and treasurer Michael Huth said the board has flexibility in regard to the project.

“If we approve this plan, it doesn’t lock us into budgets down the road,” he said. “That plan can be adjusted.”

Walker pointed out that Freeport Area has maintained a good academic reputation even though it lacks the resources of other districts. He credited the work of the administrative team and the board.

He produced a chart using the most recent data available from the state that shows Freeport Area yearly lags, on average, in per-student spending compared with peer districts in the area, in the region and statewide.

Right now, he said the district’s per-student spending figure is around $12,300 per year while the peer, state and region figures are at or above $14,000 per student.

“We have a five-year plan in place that we are asking the school board to approve to close the spending gap, do renovations and maintain quality education that Freeport is known for,” Walker said.

“At the end of the day,” Toncini said, “we have to do what is in the best interests of the students.”

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