Despite Flat Enrollment, District 87 Takes on $8M in Facilities Upgrades at BHS
Last week District 87 completed the first major component of nearly $8M in planned improvements at Bloomington High School.
The district spent $994,000 to replace the school’s grass athletic field with artificial turf that, according to district officials, will see far more use from students and community members.
BHS’s music department will also undergo a $5M transformation. Construction is already underway to add on to the school’s band room, with work to the school’s existing facilities beginning this summer.
Upgrades to the school’s HVAC systems will cost another $2.3M, although the district will receive about $300,000 in rebates, putting the final cost at $2M. Both projects will wrap up before school starts this fall.
The district issued $8M in bonds to finance all three components of infrastructure improvements at the high school.
With all the new investments into facilities, residents may think the school populations are climbing, but District 87 Superintendent Barry Reilly said that’s not the case.
Covering 10.5 square miles within the City of Bloomington, Reilly said the district has consistently stayed in the range of 5,400 and 5,500 students for the last 5 years. Meanwhile, Unit 5 Schools enrolled 13,561 students for the 2015-2016 school year.
Rather, Reilly said with the current projects administrators saw a chance to create greater opportunities for students without overburdening taxpayers with a tax increase.
The district has been eyeing both projects for years--over a decade in the case of the school’s multipurpose field. “The problem was being able to build up the capital to be able to do it,” he said.
Reilly explained the district keeps 10-12 years of “rolling debt” to pay for ongoing facilities maintenance.
“It’s not like owning a home,” he said. “When you’ve got a mortgage, you want to pay it off. When you’re a school district, you have buildings that you have to maintain. If we let that mortgage run out [and lower the tax rate], taxpayers are excited, but in the end, four years down the road we’ll need to add $.50 back. Nobody remembers that you took $.50 off.”
The money also can’t be used for teacher salaries or educational materials; the district levies a tax toward its education fund to cover those expenses.
“The public sometimes doesn’t understand that,” Reilly said. “You have different buckets of money that you can use for different things.”
Property values in District 87 have been declining for years, creating a deficit in its education fund that the district has had to use cash reserves to offset.
“Unfortunately it’s one of those things that we have to use for operations. That’s not the way it was in the past. We were actually one of the last districts to do that.”
Combined with a 20-year strategic facilities plan, the bond issuances allow the district to continue improving beyond basic maintenance. “Putting up these additions, doing the stadium, [these projects are] not short-term decisions by any means. Schools today are struggling to replace roofs or replace boilers--stuff that’s critical to keeping schools open. We’ve addressed all of those infrastructure needs so we’re not fighting for dollars to take care of some of these basic needs. We can look beyond that and do things like this.”
Reilly said he realizes the district didn’t have to take on the multi-purpose field and fine arts projects, but “when you look at the opportunities for kids, the timing with it, with being able to do the bonds in an amount that allowed us to do all of this work without increasing the taxes, that doesn’t necessarily come along all the time.”
Athletic Field Updates
Reilly admitted the projects, particularly the new athletic field, are costly. On top of the initial cost of installation, the field will continue to incur costs for the district. The top layer of the field, or “turf,” will need to be replaced every 10-15 years, at about the same cost as maintaining a natural field for a decade.
“When I talked to the community about doing this, I never said it’s going to save money,” he said.
Instead he and others within the district said the field provides a way to make sure students--and maybe even kids across Bloomington-Normal--take full advantage of the school’s facilities.
The girls soccer team was first to use the new field at BHS for a match on April 17. That’s especially fitting for Reilly--the team hasn’t had a true home field since 2000, when the high school’s natural grass field was deemed unusable for regulation soccer matches.
Since then both the boys and girls teams have played home matches at an outdoor sports complex in southeast Bloomington. Run by the Prairie Community Soccer League (PCSL), the fields have been the site of practices and matches for many local teams over the years.
However, the life expectancy of the fields, located on ground leased from the Central Illinois Regional Airport (CIRA), has been in question for some time. The Federal Aviation Administration told airport authority officials years ago policy changes would no longer allow non-airport activities on airport property, meaning CIRA would eventually need to terminate its lease with PCSL.
Soccer won’t be the only activity to benefit from the new field though. Reilly said with the natural grass field, the district essentially paid between $30,000-35,000 a year in maintenance costs to play around fifteen football games.
“Other than the band for a few performances and then practicing on it on a limited basis, you don’t get a whole lot of use out of it.”
Between PE classes, soccer matches, football games and band practice, the new multipurpose field has the potential for daily use during fair weather, Reilly said. The district is also open to forging partnerships with community-wide teams to give kids greater access to sports.
Music Program Updates
Although the district may not be adding kids, its music programs are growing, Reilly said.
Five years ago the district tested a program in which fifth graders would start the day with music education at the junior high school. Rather than have instructors travel around the six elementary schools, pulling kids out of class or recess for lessons, the fifth graders arrived at BJHS at 8:00 a.m. and were back at their respective elementary schools by 9:00 a.m.
Reilly said while the program was a huge success, problems arose when the facilities could no longer support the growing number of kids participating in music education. Over the next five years, the groups of fifth grade participants were double the size of high school seniors involved in music.
“Eventually that levels out, but we knew we had a problem,” he said.
Other options, like splitting the orchestra and band into two or three groups, wouldn’t preserve the quality of the school’s programs. It turned out an addition would cost just as much if not less than a total remodel, with more room for students.
The work does include updates to the school’s existing facilities, with the idea that the growing orchestra and choral programs will no longer need to share a space once the addition is completed.
Despite the size and cost of the facilities upgrades, Reilly said virtually all the feedback the district received concerning the projects was positive.
“We had people who were communicating with board members, most of whom were parents of students in the band and orchestra who were very supportive and really encouraging.”
As for the new multipurpose field, the superintendent recalled receiving only one negative email.
“It was raising the question of, ‘Why did we have to do this?’ I would argue that it’s really important to do things that are right by kids and to give our kids top-quality facilities...I’m a believer in that.”