COLUMBIA — Patrons of Columbia Public Schools are wondering why some schools lack air conditioning even as the district more than triples the size of its District Administration Building.
The question has been raised on blogs, in emails and in the comments section of digital newspapers.
Doreen Frappier, mother of three children in public schools, is among those who want to know: “If they have money to spend out on a new administration building, why can’t that money be used to put air conditioning in our schools?”
The district’s short answer: Different funds
Superintendent Chris Belcher said the money for the $7.8 million addition and the money for air conditioning projects can't, by law, be mixed.
The money for air conditioning comes from the bond issue voters approved in 2010. The bond lists only specific improvements to schools.
The addition to the District Administration Building, 1818 W. Worley St., is being paid for over time with money that has gone toward leasing administrative offices on Bernadette Drive and Vandiver Drive. A more detailed answer follows later in this article.
What exactly was approved in the 2010 bond issue?
The bond issue was for $120 million. Another $18 million is being carried over from the 2007 $60 million bond issue. Here's how the $138 million is being spent and an estimation for when the projects will be finished under the original timeline:
- Construction of Battle High School: $75 million, August 2013
- Construction of a new elementary school: $15 million, August 2015
- Air conditioning: $14.8 million, September 2014
- Facilities projects such as roofing and interior renovations, not including the addition to the administration building: $10 million, August 2014
- Interest and fees: $8.2 million, ongoing
- High school gyms: $7.5 million, August 2014
- Technology: $7.5 million, ongoing
How will the addition be financed?
The district will finance the addition by ending leases at its Vandiver and Bernadette locations. The expected savings from eliminating the leases is about $500,000 annually, according to the district website.
The Vandiver location has parent-teacher programs, instructional and informational technologies, athletic departments, shipping and receiving departments as well as other programs, district spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark said.
The Bernadette location houses business services, nutrition services, special education programs and human resources, she said.
The move is an effort by the school district to centralize its operations, Baumstark said.
One way to look at the purchase of the addition is to it compare it to taking out a full mortgage on a house, Belcher said. The district will have to take out a loan to pay for the new addition. Each year, the loan sum will total about $490,000. The district will pay this amount for 25 years; and, including interest, it will cost the district about $12.7 million.
How much larger will the building be?
Right now, the District Administration Building is 12,000 square feet. The addition to it will be 40,000 square feet.
The expanded building will house 142 employees, about 100 of whom are being relocated from the district offices on Vandiver and Bernadette.
How much will the addition save the district?
Projections made for the Columbia School Board and district leaders by an architecture company, Simon Oswald Associates, and engineers show that the Worley addition will save the district between $1.7 million and $7.6 million over 25 years.
The range in savings depends on whether the annual rates on the leases they're abandoning remain the same at the Bernadette and Vandiver facilities, Belcher said. If they do, the district will save at least $1.7 million; if they rise to 3 percent — an increase he said can be predicted based on historical rates — the savings could be as much as $7.6 million.
Why build the addition at all?
Belcher said the Bernadette and Vandiver locations are old buildings that are costly to operate. The Worley addition will be a “state of the art” building that will cut heating and cooling costs, potentially saving the district another $2 million in operating expenses over the next 25 years, he said.
“We have to have a state-of-the-art office so that we can function appropriately and have it be a one-stop shop for parents and families,” Belcher said.
How does the recent levy adjustment fit in?
Last month, the board increased the adjustable property tax levy 3.2 cents, adding about $1.3 million to the school district budget. Of this, $962,857 will be allotted toward the capital projects fund. A majority of this money will go toward air conditioning projects.
Belcher said that under the timeline for the 2010 bond issue, money would not have been put toward the air conditioning costs until 2013. The levy increase means the project can start ahead of schedule, he said.
Strong views all around
Mike Martin, whose Columbia Heart Beat blog reaches more than 9,000 subscribers, said in an August blog post: "Despite administrative promises that date back several years, older elementary and junior high school buildings in the Columbia Public School District remain stuck in an architectural achievement gap, without air conditioning after decades during which school officials should have installed it."
Each of Doreen Frappier's four children either attend or attended Midway Heights Elementary School or West Junior High School. They are two of eight public schools that lack air conditioning; seven of these were dismissed early four times this year so far because the classrooms were too hot. Grant Elementary School was not let out early because most of the building is air conditioned.
“In the middle of August, it’s just not a good learning environment for anyone," Frappier said.
Belcher said he understands these sentiments and wants to assure Columbia residents that the addition is a responsible course of action.
“We need to keep communicating so they’ll understand what we are doing makes good sense,” Belcher said. “It’s financially healthy, and it’s good for students and staff. Not doing this because we are afraid someone would accuse us of something would be the wrong thing to do.”
Belcher said no one wants air conditioning in those buildings faster than he does.
"I’m embarrassed and frustrated that we have this inequity in our system,” he said. “We’re all human beings, and some kids are comfortable and some teachers comfortable, and others are sweating like crazy.”
The district welcomes questions
Baumstark said she welcomes questions about all district operations. Her number is 573-214-3960 ext. 1, and her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Contact us, and we are happy to answer those questions and try to get information out in as many ways as we can,” Baumstark said. “They are certainly taxpayers and patrons of our district, and we want them to know that we are diligent when it comes to finance and taxpayer dollars."
Baumstark said every district in the state grapples with communicating how money is allocated.
“It’s a complicated thing to understand that bond funds have a timeline associated with it — that we don’t automatically have the ability to borrow down $120 million all at one time,” she said.
Despite the board's plan, Frappier remains disappointed that the school board did not address the needs of students sooner.
"If the administration turned off the air conditioning in their building on the days kids were sent home early, the board might have a different opinion," she said.