October 28, 2013

The Audubon Community School District last Monday hired the DLR Group architectural firm from Des Moines to update and complete construction projects at the elementary school in the summer of 2014.

Built in 1952, the elementary building is the oldest in the school system. According to Brett Gibbs, district superintendent, much of the building's interior has not been updated, including the low ceilings, plumbing and lighting, and the blond wood wall paneling, now considered a hazard by the fire marshal.

The school district started a series of construction projects about seven years ago, including moving the fifth and sixth grades to a new building, converting an old lunchroom into a library and adding a multipurpose and art room. But there were cost overruns with fire-code issues, and the plans were put on hold.

"Here we are seven years later, and we want to finish the plan," said Gibbs. "We definitely knew at some point in time we would have to modernize the building."

Now is the perfect time due to the availability of statewide sales tax dollars, he said. The Audubon district brings in about $460,000 per year through this funding. The state legislation guarantees this funding through 2029, enabling districts to bond against the total to complete larger projects without increasing property taxes.

According to Gibbs, the number of districts trying to pass bond issues on the ballot has decreased from 40 or 50 per year to about a dozen per year.

"Districts can utilize the sales-tax dollars, so property taxes stay down at the local level," he said. "Districts get the flexibility to do projects before they get to a critical stage."

The Audubon district bonded against the sales-tax dollars about two years ago, receiving slightly less than $3 million, said Gibbs. Some of those funds have already been spent - about $1 million to tear down the middle school and replace exit doors in the summer of 2012, and about $500,000 to upgrade upgrade windows and landscape the playground at the elementary school.

Those funds also enabled the district to refinance the loan it took out for the construction projects seven years ago, saving more than $300,000 in interest payments, Gibbs added. "One advantage of borrowing when we did (two years ago) is that interest rates were at a historic low," he said. "It was a great time to borrow money."

Though the final cost of the elementary upgrades won't be known until the bidding process is completed early next year, school officials expect to spend about $1 million. They hope to begin construction at the end of the 2013-14 school year, and have the projects completed by the start of the 2014-15 school year.

Shive-Hattery and Struxture Architects were also interviewed by the board.

According to a press release, DLR Group has done several other projects in the area, including in the Denison and Maple Valley school districts. Recommendations from school officials in those districts aided the Audubon board in making its decision.