LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The long-awaited opening of a new elementary school this summer will come at the same time Jefferson County Public Schools is expected to unveil a plan to deal with a growing problem – more than $880 million in facility needs scattered across the district.

Those needs – which include the replacement of dozens of old roofs and end-of-life heating and cooling systems at more than 40 schools – are in addition to a shifting student population that has left some of the district’s schools over capacity, while others sit half empty.

“The Baby Boom hit and cities needed schools so you built a lot of schools all at the same time,” said Michael Raisor, chief operation officer of JCPS, who notes that the vast majority of the district’s 155 schools were built between 1950 and 1980. “The downside of that is, 50 years later, you have a lot of aging structures all at the same time.”

JCPS is the 27th largest district in the nation with 101,000 students. And with enrollment expected to climb to 102,250 within the next four years, Raisor says now is the time to develop a detailed infrastructure plan – one he will present to the school board in June.

“Twenty-five years ago, they should've been doing what I'm doing right now,” he said. “This is not a problem that was created in the past 5-10 years and this is not a problem that will be fixed overnight.”

Raisor has been visiting each of the district’s 155 schools to develop a detailed infrastructure plan. He’s expected to give a status update to the board later this month.

“I’m looking at the strengths and weaknesses – what are other possible uses for this building and what, if anything, scares us about this building?” Raisor said. “I’m going to tell them how things are and I’m going to be very clear about each situation.”

JCPS has been dealing with aging facilities and a shifting student population for at least a decade, but with a capital improvement budget of roughly $35 million annually, it has been difficult to keep up with $886 million in needs identified in the district’s facility plan that was submitted to the state in 2014.

At times, it has led to a debate among board members about whether they should increase taxes to pay for more renovations and construction projects and/or consolidate schools and problems to save space.

“I think it’s time to evaluate if it would be better to sell some facilities in valuable commercial areas and replace them with better, more efficient buildings closer to students,” says school board member Chris Brady. “Although not a budget cut, this could result in long-term operational savings for the district and improve student outcomes.”

Linda Duncan, who has been on the school board since 2006, has also brought up the district’s facilities at meetings over the past six years.

“I think it’s time for us to consider an increase of nickel tax,” Duncan said. “Facilities are an ongoing expense and it doesn’t get any cheaper. Right now, we just put Band-Aids over everything. Eventually, it’s going to catch up with us.”

The nickel tax is a special tax that generates money for school facility renovations or construction projects. Currently, the nickel tax in Jefferson County is at 5 cents, which is the minimum requirement.

What is a nickel tax?

  • The district's current property tax rate is 71 cents per $100 of assessed value, which means the owner of a $100,000 home currently pays about $710 in property taxes to JCPS.
  • Of that 71 cents, 5 cents (equivalent of about $33 million annually) is reserved for capital improvement funds.
  • In addition, JCPS collects 58.5 cents per $100 of assessed motor vehicle value and 5 cents from that tax is also reserved for capital improvements.
  • School boards in Kentucky can vote to levy an additional nickel tax, which can be recallable by voters. This means that community members have 45 days after a school board's vote to file a petition with the clerk’s office to recall the nickel tax. It would then be put on a ballot for voters to decide.

JCPS spokeswoman Allison Martin said while the district has the option to ask for the nickel tax, it has not utilized that provision in the past.

“This is not something that is being considered at this point,” Martin told WDRB on Friday.

'Strong infrastructure needed to have strong school system'

One of the district’s main focuses in the past two years has been dealing with crowding issues in eastern Jefferson County.

Two of the district’s largest elementary clusters were expected to be over capacity by 2018, so the board decided to convert Alex Kennedy Metro Middle in Jeffersontown back into an elementary school at the start of the 2015-16 year and build a new school in Norton Commons, which opens this August.

“We have done a really great job at balancing all of our capital projects and our staff has done a phenomenal job maintaining the buildings that we have,” Raisor said.

According to his most recent analysis, Raisor says the average age of the district’s buildings is approaching 60 years old.

“We have a lot of old buildings and maintaining them becomes a challenge, just like an old house,” he said. “Just like we're seeing with our nation's roads and bridges, you have to have a strong infrastructure to have a strong economy; a strong infrastructure is needed to have a strong school system in order to make learning possible."

Brady, who has been hesitant to vote on funding renovations at some of the district's older schools, said he agrees.

"We are trying to be good stewards of money, but when the average of a facility is approaching 60 years old, we have to take a look at our entire infrastructure plan," Brady said. "I don't think the district has ever had a study of this magnitude done on its facilities."

Three years ago, officials told the board 46 schools would need a “recommended replacement” of their HVAC systems by 2020. Since then, only a handful has been replaced, Raisor said.

Replacing an old HVAC system can cost anywhere from $5 to $20 million. Case in point: JCPS has spent more than $40 million in the past two years on renovating the HVAC systems at Fern Creek High and Southern High.

“You're ripping the guts out of the building and putting them back in brand new,” Raisor said. “It's a very invasive type of exercise to do."

When looking at the district as a whole, Raisor says he is open to exploring all options. That could include closing some schools and building new – instead of renovating.

“Old building utility costs and maintenance are so much more than new modern buildings are,” Raisor said. “That's kind of the X-factor, you have to determine what you are now spending on those things and what you would be spending in the future.”

From 1989 through 2014, 59 percent of the JCPS construction dollars have gone to HVAC (heating and air conditioning system) renovations, 25 percent have gone to build new schools, 6 percent to library/media center additions, 5 percent to classroom additions and 5 percent to other needs.

The district opened Farmer and Stopher elementaries in 2007 and Ramsey Middle in 2008. All three (as well as the new $17 million Norton Commons Elementary) are located in eastern Jefferson County.

But at the same time, there are dozens of schools that are under capacity: Gilmore Lane, Frayser and Kerrick elementaries, Stuart and Thomas Jefferson middle schools and the Academy @ Shawnee high school.

For example, Shawnee is among the district’s oldest schools (built in 1927). Enrollment at the school was 625 in 2005-06. Current enrollment is 485.

“We expect 90 percent of schools to have the same capacity this year as they did in 2015-16,” said Dena Dossett, chief of data management, planning and evaluation for JCPS, in a report given to the school board last month. “Three schools have increased capacity, while 12 elementary schools have reduced capacity.”

Dossett said the opening of Alex Kennedy Elementary allowed the district to “relieve some of the capacity issues within that elementary cluster. It gave other schools some extra room.”

However, some board members have questioned how the district determines capacity at schools.

"The way we determine program capacity is flawed and it needs to be re-evaluated," Brady said. "I don't think we are using our space in a way that is conducive for learning."

Duncan says she agrees.

"With schools that are underpopulated and not in need of a major repair, maybe there is space for a different program," she said. "We are going to have to define how to handle this capacity issue with certain schools."

Improvements in progress 

Several schools are currently in the middle of capital improvements or have already had their renovations approved by the board.

Butler High School is in the middle of an HVAC replacement, while Greenwood Elementary and the Youth Performing Arts Center at duPont Manual High School are scheduled to have their HVAC systems replaced this summer.

Seven schools will also get their roofs replaced this year: Watson Lane, Wheeler and Zachary Taylor elementary schools; Western and Conway middle schools; Central High School and Westport TAPP.

The four schools scheduled to have their HVACs replaced in 2017 include Indian Trail, Mill Creek elementary schools, South Park TAPP and Pleasure Ridge Park High School.

But as board member Duncan points out -- another school could jump ahead on the list.

"There have been many times where a school thinks it's going to be their turn, but then there will be another building that comes up with a more urgent need," she said. "It seems like we are always fixing something old, just hoping that it will all be OK."

Raisor said the focus of his report in June will be broken down into three parts.

“This will be a comprehensive assessment of our primary operational infrastructure – our school buses, buildings and the technology our students use every day," he said. "We will come out with reports and recommendations of what next five years should look like in each of those areas."

By law, the district has to put a plan together every four years, assessing the needs of schools. Because of its size, JCPS creates one every two years, Raisor said.

Raisor is also researching how similar districts across the country are handling the same problem with aging facilities. Comparisons will be in the final report.

In addition, the school district is always looking to acquire land.

"Right now we aren't actively looking," he said. "We do we get approached from time to time and we assess the land."

Raisor added that JCPS does have a parcel of land located off Watterson Trail near Hurstborne Parkway that is large enough for an elementary school.

"We also have lots near other schools that we've purchased over the years," he said.

Brady said that he wants to have all of the facts before making a decision about what needs to be done.

"We have a lot of needs," he said. "But we can't start talking about possible solutions until we have a plan that is forward leaning enough to look at what needs to be done over the next 5, 10 and 20 years."

Reporter Antoinette Konz covers K-12 education for WDRB News. She can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

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