ROCK ISLAND — The time is now for Rock Island-Milan School Board members to consider bonding out the 1% sales tax money the school district receives in order to tackle a list of major facility improvements totaling $26 million.
That was the message delivered by Rock Island Mayor Mike Thoms Tuesday at the school board meeting. Thoms said he was chiefly speaking as a member of the district’s long-range planning committee. He provided board members a list of projects and projected prices for using 1% sales tax funding to bring significant upgrades to the district, which he said would both improve learning environments for students and staff and better position the district to stay competitive and improve its curb appeal.
Thoms was joined at the meeting by other committee members, including Chris Elsberg, Alan Carmen and Michelle Lillis.
Thoms commended board members for fulfilling several commitments it made during the campaigns for securing the 1% sales tax. This includes eliminating the life safety tax and committing to making building security a top priority.
He commended board members for being very prudent in the use of the funding. He said about $1.7 million has been spent each year for facilities upgrades, allowing the district to build up a $3 million reserve for future projects. To date, he said, board members have stuck to a “pay-as-you-go” model.
“But times are changing, the projects are changing,” he said. “This changes things a little bit.”
“This is why we’re recommending the board now change gears a little,” he said.
Thoms said the committee now asks the board to consider borrowing money. He said interest rates are “dog gone low” and this type of borrowing would not impact the district’s bonding rating because funds from the 1% sales tax would be used to repay the debt.
Items on the recommended improvements list include $9 million for a new high school pool and mechanicals, $500,000 for turf at the stadium, and $2 million for new carpeting and flooring at the high school. Thoms said some items, including the pool and the turf, are nearing obsolescence. He said the bleachers in the stadium and field house pose a liability concern due to their age.
“I’m not sure we can afford to wait too much longer for those types of amenities,” Thoms said.
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In all, the committee is asking the board to consider moving forward with $15.4 million in facilities projects at the high school. That includes $4.3 million for a long-discussed production kitchen.
The committee recommended more than $3.4 million in facility projects for the 2020-2021 year, including $2.1 million for a secure entryway and cafeteria addition at Washington Junior High.
The district is allowed to bond out 80% of the revenues from the 1% sales tax. Thoms and the committee urged the board to begin serious consideration of bonding out projects, and moving forward with design planning for future work so that the district is ready to move forward toward modernization.
Elsberg said people come to Rocky for various events and they are given a bad impression from the poor state of the bathrooms at the stadium or seeing the turf torn up. She said these may seem like small issues, but they add up.
“A little, puny part could make a big impression,” she said. “There are new things going on at United Township and at Moline. We’re falling behind. We need to pick that up to get people to keep coming.”
Board president Gary Rowe said the board takes the committee’s recommendation very seriously and the board will count on administration staff and superintendent Reginald Lawrence for guidance in moving forward.
Board members also heard from Rock Island-Milan Education Foundation director Monta Ponsetto. She discussed the Austin Academic Achievement Awards scholarship night, held in May, which celebrated 159 Rock Island High School students and awarded $88,200 in scholarships to students. She also discussed the foundation’s PRIME grants, which has provided $123,744 in funding for 55 projects this school year. Ponsetto said the foundation has provided a total of $286,000 in support this year to the district.
Also Tuesday, board members extended an invitation to the public to attend the next board meeting, on Sept. 24, to discuss the district’s student behavior policy. Lawrence said this will be an opportunity to gather information in order to move toward updating the policy. Rowe said no vote will be taken at the meeting, but the information gained will be instrumental input. He said no students will be named during the conversation.
In other business, board members:
- Took no action following a closed session to discuss several items, including the superintendent evaluation and goal setting; and salaries for both non-categorical and administrator employees.
- Welcomed new student board members Alijah Walker-Lee, Macy O’Mary, and Zoe Veasey.
- Voted to approve the expulsions of three unnamed students.