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As federal funds slow, Bellevue school officials consider first bond issue in decades

As federal funds slow, Bellevue school officials consider first bond issue in decades

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For years, military airplanes soaring over Bellevue filled residents’ hearts with pride and their schools with money.

Having a military base in their backyard meant millions of dollars in federal aid to help educate the children of military personnel.

But impact aid has shrunk sharply for Bellevue schools, largely because the portion of military-related children enrolled has fallen compared to overall enrollment.

No longer qualifying as a “highly impacted” military district, school officials are contemplating the district’s first bond referendum in decades to repair and upgrade buildings.

Officials in Nebraska’s fifth-largest district are undertaking a major study of facility needs. In addition to laying the groundwork for a bond issue, the study could result in closing some schools and retooling others with new programs.

“We used to do an awful lot of things when we had extra government money,” said Frank Kumor, school board vice president. “Of course, when you have $8 (million) to $12 million less a year, it hurts.”

The percentage of federally connected students in the Bellevue schools dropped from 72 percent in 1972 to 34 percent in 2010.

Impact aid fell from $16.9 million in 2004-05 to $2.8 million in 2013-14, down 84 percent.

Federal impact aid enabled the district to build Lewis and Clark Middle School, the Lied Center and other schools and projects through the years without a bond issue.

The district currently imposes no bond levy. Bellevue voters last approved a bond issue in 1974. Funds from that built Bellevue West High School.

Residents enjoy one of the lowest total school property tax rates in the metro area: $1.088 per $100 of property valuation.

Residents in adjacent and similar-sized Papillion La Vista Community Schools pay $1.30, about 23 cents of which pays off bonds.

The Jacobs consulting firm of Fort Worth, Texas, produced a comprehensive assessment of Bellevue’s facilities in October.

The consultant reviewed the condition of every district school, identifying $23.8 million in “current need” projects to bring systems and components back to a functional state, such as fixing broken light fixtures or an inoperable rooftop air conditioning unit.

Of the $23.8 million, about $7.6 million of repairs were deemed to be “mission critical,” meaning they might directly affect a school’s ability to stay open or they are likely to deteriorate to that stage if not addressed in the near term. These are such things as roofing, skylights, mechanical and electrical systems, and plumbing.

The consultant projected that an additional $36.5 million might be needed over the next five years, based on the serviceable life of systems. For instance, a 16-year-old roof with a 20-year life might need replacing four years from now.

“I would not say we’re going to say you have to replace all $60 million worth of stuff right away,” Assistant Superintendent Jeff Rippe said. “The $23 million you have to look at right away because they’re saying these are immediate needs.”

Meantime, district officials have been compiling a want-list of projects that would enhance technology and education in the schools.

That might include shifting from computer labs to a computer for each student in the classrooms, replacing old musical instruments, adding lecture rooms and theater spaces, replacing athletic turf and repairing stadiums. Those projects and the costs are not yet determined.

One such project, for instance, is to build a new theater at Bellevue West, which has outgrown its original theater, officials say.

Security enhancements are also being examined, such as card-reader access to buildings, additional cameras and vestibules to steer visitors into a secure office area rather than into the main building.

Potential school closings are under consideration as a way to operate more efficiently and use excess spaces to offer new programs, officials say.

Kumor said he is already hearing from residents who learned about the proposals and want to keep schools open.

“Nothing’s being closed right now,” he said. “That’s just something we’re going to study, and that’s going to come down the road long after our needs for our buildings, the roofs and the boilers.”

The district’s two smallest elementary schools and a third in the southwest part of the district are being looked at for possible closure.

Central Elementary School in the Olde Town area is operating at full capacity, but with just 195 students, it is more expensive than others to operate, officials say. The average Bellevue elementary school has 432 kids.

Bertha Barber Elementary, in the eastern part of the district, is operating at about two-thirds capacity with an enrollment of 172.

Under one option, students from Central and Bertha Barber could be reassigned to other nearby schools.

Bertha Barber could be used to serve 23 special education students. The district could close and sell the CHAP school, where they now attend.

“Any time you have small buildings, they are more expensive to operate,” Rippe said. “So obviously, if you have capacity at other buildings and you combine them, you gain some efficiencies.”

Officials are also evaluating whether to turn Logan Fontenelle Middle School or Mission Middle School into a “high school skilled tech center.” In either case, the district would have to add classrooms to the remaining middle school.

Officials say that scenario would provide some capacity relief for both high schools. The middle school boundaries would have to be redrawn.

Under that scenario, Rippe said, high school students who chose to enroll in those programs would take core classes such as English and math at the high schools and go to the center for specialized electives.

“It wouldn’t be a third high school,” he said. “You still have two high schools, but you’re offering programs that both high schools could take advantage of.”

Other options floated would be to refurbish the existing skilled tech spaces at the high schools and turn Mission Middle School into a magnet or to renovate the underused portion of Mission for pre-K-to-sixth-grade programs, to serve children displaced by the closing of Central and Bertha Barber.

Mission has a capacity of 769 and currently enrolls 440 — 57 percent utilization.

The southwest school looked at for possible closing is Fort Crook Elementary, which consultants said is surrounded by several elementary schools and is on a leased site.

Meantime, officials have proposed turning Two Springs Elementary School into a magnet school because they say it is underused. The school sits on the edge of the district boundary and could potentially attract students from outside the district, they say.

One challenge to winning voter approval for a bond issue could be the lack of overcrowding.

The district saw moderate growth the last 10 years. A consultant’s projections call for a 2.6 percent decline over the next five years to 9,792 students.

About 15 percent of Bellevue’s enrollment comes from outside the district, Rippe said. If not for transfers in, the district’s enrollment would be falling at a faster rate.

“We’ve been very fortunate that people want to come to Bellevue. They choose to come to Bellevue through the open and option enrollment. But without that, if you look at just Bellevue, there’s just not a whole lot of new housing going in, a lot of development.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1077, joe.dejka@owh.com

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