Warren County’s largest school system plans $42.2M building project

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

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Mason School officials hold public meetings to get input on school expansions totaling $42.2 million.

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Officials from Warren County’s largest school system held two public town hall meetings Wednesday to get input on an upcoming $42.2 million school building project.

The Mason school system, which borders Butler County’s Lakota Local Schools, is the latest, large district in the area to launch major construction projects. Fairfield and Middletown schools are both in historically large new school construction and renovation projects. Fairfield will open three new schools in August, and Middletown will open a new middle school and expanded high school prior to the start of the 2018-2019 school year.

Among the financial news shared with one of crowds of Mason residents was the projection that a new operating tax levy would likely be on the local ballot in two to three years.

Mason school officials said they were surprised in December when the Ohio Schools Facilities Commission informed them they were eligible for $33.7 million in state building funding.

But in order to qualify for the funding, the district must move on plans swiftly, Mason officials said.

The district has long had plans to expand the Mason Early Childhood Center, renovate the aging Mason Middle School and close the district’s oldest building — Western Row Elementary.

The $8.5 million difference can be covered by Mason’s current permanent improvement fund, which under state law are local tax dollars designated only for use on school facilities and transportation services — not operating costs.

“That’s why we decided to jump in,” Mason Schools Superintendent Gail Kist-Kline said. “We will not need a (tax) bond to cover these costs,” she said of the $8.5 million.

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But school officials also said a new operating tax levy will likely be needed in two to three years but that too many variables — such as the state’s undetermined level of future funding for Mason schools — exist now to speculate on the exact timing for the proposed tax hike and its millage size.

Mason residents rejected an operating tax hike in 2010 — the first ballot loss for an operating levy since the 1970s.

The last time local voters approved a school operating tax increase was in 2005.

“We’re looking to engage our community to get some feedback on two major questions,” Kist-Kline said. “How fast do we want to go with renovating our middle school and how do we clearly communicate to our community the difference between capital projects, which is our building facilities project, and our operating costs.”

The proposed work expanding Mason Early Childhood Center would begin this summer, and renovation of the Mason Middle School, which was first opened in 1959, would begin later in 2017.

Mason school parent Julie Washington said she appreciated school officials soliciting residents’ input on the upcoming projects.

“It was very informative,” said Washington of the meeting. And she praised school officials for making clear “what the plan is and what the opportunity is we’ve received from the state.”

By leveraging money from the Ohio School Facilities Commission, Mason will add nearly 17,000 square feet to its early childhood center and renovate Mason Middle School.

When facilities work is completed, MECC will serve students in pre-kindergarten through second grade, and Mason Intermediate School will serve students in grades three through six. Seventh and eighth grades will remain at Mason Middle School and grades nine through 12 will remain at Mason High School.

Officials estimate that closing Western Row Elementary School will save $500,000 annually in operating costs. Renovating the building to OSFC standards would cost approximately $14 million. The school currently serves one-third of the district’s second-graders and all of Mason’s third-graders.

By shuttering Western Row, the plan eliminates splitting grades and lessens the number of transitions students make, while providing flexibility to potentially meet the needs of students for the next 50 years, school officials said.

Under the proposed plan, an addition at MECC will include 11 classrooms, an expanded cafeteria, extended gym space, additional offices and an additional multi-purpose room — for a total cost of about $7.9 million. Approximately $500,000 will be dedicated to improving traffic circulation and playgrounds at Mason Intermediate.

The bulk of the project’s cost — about $30.65 million — will be spent on a total renovation of Mason Middle School, which was built in 1959. Work will include replacing the HVAC system, lighting and roof, upgrading technology, resurfacing parking lots, adding new furnishings and updating finishes like flooring, paint, ceilings and casework.

This article also contains reporting by contributing writer Lisa Knodel .

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