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Wednesday, 20 March 2013 16:17

With an eye on growth, Turner seeks $28 million

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Referendum on April 2 ballot

BELOIT TOWNSHIP - Officials from the Beloit Turner School District hope to be proactive instead of reactive when it comes to accommodating future student growth.

Voters will weigh in April 2 on a $28 million referendum to fund a new high school.

Superintendent Dennis McCarthy said the purpose of building a new high school would be to handle the district's growing enrollment. The district's enrollment has increased by about 23 percent during the past 10 years. The district currently has about 1,476 students compared to 1,201 students during the 2003-'04 school year.

"Up until 2008, we had really strong residential growth around here. There was a lot of building going on. A lot of people were settling in the communities that we serve, in many cases, to attend school here," McCarthy said. "We backed off on open enrollment quite a bit, because we were seeing such a strong growth in residential enrollment."

The plan

In 2010, the district purchased 44 acres of land northwest of the current high school building that would be the site of the new school. If the referendum is approved, construction would begin this summer with the building being completed for the 2015-'16 school year. McCarthy said the new high school would be able to accommodate 600 students.

"It's going to be years down the road before we get to that number. Quite frankly, if we built it for 600 students and we opened it with 600 students, we would be making a huge mistake," McCarthy said. "It gives our district the opportunity to expand and grow, and we think with that kind of opportunity, it sends a message to families and businesses that want to settle in this area that it's a forward-thinking district, that it's a district that values education and it's a place where you would want to have your kids and families raised."

McCarthy said the new high school building would allow the district to offer science, technology, engineering and math programming, also known as STEM, and to increase the number of advanced placement courses.

High school principal Ryan Bertelson said the way teachers prepare has changed dramatically since the current school was built.

"The current high school building was not designed with teacher collaboration in mind. Teaching is no longer an inclusive practice and therefore teachers must have the opportunity to collaborate," Bertelson wrote in an email. "The new high school will be designed with this in mind, allowing teachers to have classrooms in close proximity to their department colleagues."

McCarthy said now would be a good time to build a new high school because of the low interest rates to borrow money.

"There's extremely low and competitive interest rates in borrowing right now, historically low," McCarthy said. "That saves millions of dollars in interest on a project like this."

Along with the new high school, the district's grades would be reconfigured. The current high school building would become a middle school, serving students in grades six through eight. McCarthy said the current high school building would allow the district to offer more programs at the middle school level.

"There's a lot more classroom space available. We would have more labs. There's far more gym space, going from a one-station gym to a two-and-a-half station gym," McCarthy said. "On any given day, it's 60 to 65 students using a one-station gym. So, it's very crowded in there, but we have space in the current high school, which is ideal."

The current middle school area would house students in grades third through fifth.

"There's additional space for grades three, four and five that would occur at the middle school building," McCarthy said. "We have a physical education space that doesn't have to be shared with the cafeteria, where we lose quite a bit of programming during the day."

Schools reconfigured

Powers Elementary School would be used for first- and second-grade students, and Townview Elementary School would become a kindergarten and early childhood education center, which would decrease the school's population to under 200 students.

McCarthy said Townview is served by a well and septic system and has limited Internet capabilities, which is inadequate for the current 300 students who attend that building.

"The amount of money and the option of how you get sewer and water into that building, there's no easy answer for that," McCarthy said. "It's a real issue for us. So, your option is you either find a way to eliminate 100 students, which is not a good idea - obviously, you want to find a way to grow your student body - or we had to find a way to limit the use of that building."

In 2008, district residents approved a referendum to make improvements to Powers Elementary School and the middle school/high school building to prepare for a new high school building.

Residents concerned

Not everyone is as gung-ho on the project as the district administration, however.

Several residents have expressed concern that the reason the district wants to build a new high school is to attract more students through open enrollment.

"My concern is, is there a need? I feel this is being driven by open enrollment," David Townsend, town of Beloit resident, said. "The law states you don't have to take students for open enrollment if you don't have the room. I don't think (a new high school) is justified when the law says you can stop taking students for open enrollment. I feel we should stop taking students for open enrollment and keep the taxes down. The new high school wouldn't be funded by open enrollment but by the taxpayers. That's why I'm voting against (the referendum)."

Townsend said even though interest rates are low, he feels now is not a good time for the district to construct a new high school.

"Is now a good time to build? Absolutely. Interest rates are at an all-time low. Building costs are going up, but they're still low," Townsend said. "I'm just not in favor of building a new high school at this time. I don't think it's the right thing to do."

Community meetings

The school has hosted ad hoc committee meetings and plans to host two informational meetings to explain the plan to residents. (See above.)

"What our hope is, by sharing and continually to openly share this information, we're going to be giving folks accurate information rather than misinformation that has spread," McCarthy said. "We feel that we've been open in the process and we want to continue to be open. It will allow people to ask the questions that they need to have answered in order for them to come to a conclusion on April 2 that they're going to be the most comfortable with."

McCarthy said if the referendum is not approved, the district plans to place it on the ballot again during an upcoming election.

"I think we would have to, because I think the fact of the matter is if we look into the future for our district, we have to find a way to steadily grow our student population," McCarthy said. "We want to manage that growth, but we've really hit a point where it's difficult to find another place to put students from the community or from open enrollment, and if we're going to do that, we're going to need that space, because we don't want class sizes to continue to swell."

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