Mt. Vernon Register-News

July 11, 2013

MVTHS questioned on new school project

By TRAVIS MORSE travis.morse@register-news.com
The Register-News

---- — MT. VERNON – To local business owner Jeff Haarmann, Wednesday's special meeting of the Mt. Vernon Township High School Board of Education shed some much-needed light on the district's controversial new school project.

The key now, he said, is for school officials to manage the project as best they can to keep costs in line. Haarmann is the managing partner of Affordable Gas & Electric Company.

“This kind of thing is absolutely important because it gives public input into the whole process,” Haarmann said of Wednesday's meeting. “That's what it's really all about.”

Haarmann was one of about 50 people to attend the special forum, which MVTHS hosted for members of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce.

The two-hour meeting included a presentation by the school district's financial adviser, Tim King, on the use of bonds to pay for the project. Chief Architect Greg Brown also spoke at length about the design of the new school and why certain decisions were made.

Throughout the meeting, audience members asked tough questions about how the project came to its current state.

The MVTHS Board decided to hold the forum after the Chamber in late June sent a letter to its membership questioning the new price tag of the project.

“We knew we needed to do something,” said MVTHS Board President Carl Miller. He added that Wednesday's meeting proved to be productive. “It was good to have a forum where people could ask their questions and get an answer.”

One of the main sticking points for critics is how the project's estimated cost increased from roughly $62 million to $72.8 million. About $48 million of the total cost will come from the state and $27.7 million will be the local share.

At the time of the bond referendum in 2011, voters were asked to approve the issuance of $19.8 million in bonds for the school. Now, the school is looking into an additional $4 million in premium bonds.

“It appears to me that in the private sector you have to meet those numbers you sold to the public,” said audience member Jim Rippy of Mt. Vernon. “If that meant adapting or changing scopes, you'd have to do that.”

The estimated cost of the project increased in late 2011 after the referendum had passed. The Illinois Capital Development Board, which is providing funds for the project, issued new cost estimates.

The original estimates were made in 2003 when MVTHS first applied for the CDB grant.

“There was a lot of educated guessing,” Brown said. “Some of them we hit, some of them we missed.”

School officials decided to continue the project under the increased cost so as not to lose state grant funding.

The $4 million in premium bonds may not be needed, depending on how much funding is generated from selling parts of the current MVTHS campus or through private donations. A decision on issuing those bonds likely won't be made until 2014.

Last summer, many Mt. Vernon homeowners saw their tax rate jump over 10 percent, mainly due to the first bond issue for the new school project.

King said the school project will not cause any further tax increases. The district has chosen a level repayment plan for paying back the bonds, which should keep the tax rate stable.

Many other concerns were raised Wednesday, including whether the new oval design of the school has a “proven functionality.” Questions were also asked about security at the new campus, road maintenance, and other issues.

Information from Wednesday's forum will be posted on the school district's website at www.mvths.org.