The County Commission got a standing ovation from a packed house on Monday, after passing a measure to fund $15.5 million for the beginning of a much-needed overhaul and expansion at two of the county’s oldest schools.
Nothing turns terms like “near-capacity” or “over-crowded” from abstract problems to calls for immediate action like hearing from the numerous Page High School students who live each day surrounded by their real effects. Just two of the current overcrowding issues mean that football training sheds and garages double as AP Psychology and History classrooms and nearly 1,200 students share a cafeteria that struggles to fit 450.
After hearing the stories from the students, but also their unflinching pride and respect for the school, its teachers and programs, the commission unanimously approved the money for Phase I of a Master Plan that will overhaul Page High and Middle. Page High opened in 1975 with a planned capacity of 850 students. Today, after adding classrooms in the ’90s, its capacity on paper is 1,215. It has 1,131 this year. Page Middle, with 975 students this year, has a capacity for 1,052.
The money breaks down into $10.5 million for a three-story, 30-classroom building, the demolition of a 10-classroom part of the existing school, along with a parking lot, bus loop and sewer improvements at Page Middle. The remaining $5 million will pay for design work to add capacity at Page High and build a lane to the middle school; also, a turf football field, an official eight-lane track and parking.
All told, WCS officials expect the Page project to cost $70 million over three phases. Commissioner Todd Kaestner pointed out what that means financially.
“This is not a $10 million decision, this is a $70 million decision,” he said. “We are walking down the path of a master plan that taken together costs $70 million dollars. So my question to Dr. Looney is, if we gave you $70 million, is this what you would do with it? And I think his answer is yes. I’m not so sure we shouldn’t amend this amount up to $70 million and get on with it. We have been talking about this for years.”
Kaestner said this, and the other recently funding school expansion and construction intent-to-fund resolutions passed over the last six or so months, could conceivably lead to a property tax increase.
“If we spend $70 million, that will be a 5 cent tax increase, if we do not prevail on our Education Impact Fee litigation or an upcoming county-wide referendum to increase the local sales tax by a half-percent,” he said. “I am okay with that if it will solve this problem.”
He made a public pledge to vote for such a tax increase when next year’s budget vote comes up in July, if need be.
A problem still unsolved by this appropriation is the sewage problem. The state will not allow Page to expand its capacity by even a single additional classroom without first increasing its sewer capacity, as Commissioner Greg Lawrence pointed out during the discussion of the resolution before the vote.
“We don’t have anything nailed down concretely but I believe we have two very viable options [of sites to build sewage treatment on],” Superintendent Dr. Mike Looney, who came to support the resolution despite two broken bones in his back, said.”Our expectation is to do the sewer project concurrent to the construction project. If neither of the two options works, then we do have the authority legally to condemn property [and then use it to create the sewer], we don’t want to do that, but we have to have sewer.”
In April, the County Commission approved an intent-to-fund of $4.9 million for site and design work at Page High and Middle Schools, precursor to this funding.
The expansion will add capacity of 1,000 students at Page High and 600 at Page Middle.
Page is just one among several WCS schools that are set to undergo expansions. Brentwood High and Middle School had $17.9 million approved in April and Franklin High School had nearly $10 million approved in August for expansions