District 11 spending $3.75M on Westside projects for coming school year

       With construction starting last week on the additions at Jackson and Howbert elementaries, District 11 has narrowed down its building costs this year as part of its school reutilization plan.

Work on Howbert Elementary's $1.2-million addition was in its early stages this week. Although District 11 officials maintain that the reutilization that led to school closures will save money over time, it's also meant some new construction and remodeling for the coming school year.
Westside Pioneer photo

       The district-wide total is just under $4 million, with $3.75 million of that being applied to four Westside schools, according to figures from Glenn Gustafson, D-11's chief financial officer.
       Although this amount may exceed the savings this year from closing eight district school buildings (three on the Westside), he pointed out that the building expenditures are just one-time costs while the dollars saved from the closures will be repeated year after year in future district budgets.
       “We're spending one-time dollars to better set up the district for the next century with schools located in proximity to students,” he said.
       The exact saving is still being analyzed, but the standard formula is that it saves the district about $400,000 a year for each elementary school it closes and $1 million for each middle school, according to Gustafson.
       “Next year the savings will come again,” he said, estimating the annual figure at $3-4 million a year.
       But this year, “we'll spend all the savings, or the vast majority of them, between moving and construction and making sure the school communities meld together because we want to ensure a good transition for parents and students,” he said.
       The construction breakdown at the four Westside schools is as follows:
       Jackson - $1.5 million for a six-room addition.

A surveyor pounds in a stake while a bulldozer clears space for Jackson Elementary’s six-room addition at the north end of the school this week.
Westside Pioneer photo
Howbert - $1.2 million for a four-room addition.
       West - $690,000 for an extensive remodeling to create a new elementary school inside what was just a middle school. This work started June 1.
       Whittier - $360,000 to remodel the 108-year-building from an elementary school into an alternative high school (the Bijou School). This work started at the end of June.
       The remodels are slated to be done before the new school year starts Aug. 18, while the additions are scheduled for readiness by the second semester, which starts in January.
       The district had been considering closures of schools for several years because of continuing enrollment drops. The several smaller schools on the Westside were especially targeted because most of their classrooms were well below capacity; additionally, education trends favor larger schools that can offer a wider range of programs.
       But there's no predicting how much leeway the district will have in using the long-term closure savings. Gustafson noted that the state “is talking about reducing our funding,” which could end up meaning that the savings will end up covering those cuts. “School finances are in scary times,” he said.
       District 11 is evidently in better shape than some districts. Gustafson gave as an example the Douglas County district, which needs to cut $20 million and has no schools it can shut down.
       On the Westside, D-11 actually closed four elementaries (Buena Vista, Pike, Washington and Whittier), but the Washington site will be reutilized for the Buena Vista Montessori program and Whittier for the Bijou School. So there are three sites where schools will no longer be in operation: Buena Vista, Pike and Bijou (which was at the original Bristol School site at Dale and Walnut streets).
       Gustafson said the district would like to get offers on the Bijou site (along with its Ivywild Elementary and Irving Middle School properties). A request for proposals was to be issued “by July 15,” he said, which would state that the district is open to possibilities from individuals or entities wanting to buy, lease or partner with the district in some way on those sites. D-11 has no specific expectations; “we could get anything,” Gustafson said.
       Currently, similar measures for Pike are not in the works. It is being partially used for district storage, including its records office.
       The district's reutilization strategy, which culminated this spring in action by the Board of Education, has gotten some backlash from the Westside, including multiple critical articles in the Spring 2009 issue of the Westside Story, published by the Organization of Westside Neighbors (OWN), the recognized advocacy group for the older Westside. In it, the district is accused of failing to “show any expected financial results, when any savings will kick in or how much those savings will be.”
       However, neither OWN nor any other opponents of the reutilization have organized a board member recall nor offered an alternative proposal to meet the financial needs as the current board and staff have defined them.

Westside Pioneer article