“I’m dreaming big,” Orion superintendent Joe Blessman told 40 or so people at the school board’s town hall on Tuesday, Nov. 12, in the commons at Orion Middle School.
He was introducing the possibility of a 500-seat auditorium on the Orion High School campus, which all three schools and the community could use.
Earlier this fall, Blessman discuss such an auditorium with Jeff Sandberg, the regional manager of Legat Architects in Moline.
A preliminary estimate of the cost is $8 million, the superintendent said.
Orion’s enrollment is declining, and an auditorium would help the district attract new students, Blessman said.
“We’re competing with other districts,” he said. “We already have great test scores, great athletic teams and a new band director who’s doing a great job.”
An auditorium “would be the crown jewel for the district,” the superintendent said.
“We want to continue to make the Orion school district attractive,” said board member Kim Nightingale.
“We’ve put a lot of money into athletics,” board member Aaron Kayser said. “This is something we could use to compete with surrounding communities.”
Events the auditorium could host include dramas and musicals, band and choir concerts by Orion High School and Orion Middle School students, music festivals by C.R. Hanna Elementary School children, school assemblies, high school graduation and eighth grade promotion and town halls, the superintendent said.
Cindy Vestal, president of Orion Music Boosters, pointed out an auditorium could host Prairieland Conference and Three Rivers Conference band and choir festivals, as well as FFA contests such as parliamentary procedure. Classes could use the new building.
Scholastic Bowl is another event an auditorium could host, Blessman said. Other events include speech competitions, awards programs and banquets, LEGO Robotics contests.
Jaclyn Marta is building a high school drama program that presents a fall play, winter one-acts and a spring musical, and they have trouble finding places to practice, Blessman said.
The stage is not available on nights when OHS hosts volleyball, basketball and wrestling contests.
The OMS gym is too small for the school’s band and choir concerts, which have to be held at the high school, said Stephanie Moen, the general music teacher at C.R. Hanna.
Blessman said the Orion Community Band could present concerts there, and Memorial Day observances could be held there in case of inclement weather. The district could charge community groups a fee to cover janitorial costs.
While the community would be welcome to use the auditorium, Blessman does not like going farther and building a community center. People agree to take care of it and don’t.
“We already open our current buildings to community groups,” the superintendent said.
Sandberg and Blessman discussed an auditorium with stadium seating, the superintendent said. The architect could design the building so a balcony could be added if necessary.
Marta said she and former band director Jen Hays what features would be nice for drama and music programs.
The sons and daughters of school board members Peter Nedved, Julie Abbott and Christi Monson are involved in music, Blessman said. District officials will be consulting everyone who would be using an auditorium.
Also, a committee will visit schools with auditoriums, the superintendent said.
“We want to know, if you were to do it over, what would you do differently?” Blessman said.
For example, Geneseo High School’s theater doesn’t have an orchestra pit.
The auditorium would be attached to the high school by a corridor from the external band room door, the superintendent said. It would take up some of practice fields east of the student parking lot.
Board member Brandon Cooper said the auditorium probably would take up half of the practice field between the parking lot and the softball diamond.
An auditorium also could be east of the multi-purpose room, Blessman said.
Cooper said he would like to discuss installing turf at Charger Field, which could then be used for practices. Turf would address scheduling issues because consecutive games could be played on it.
Geneseo and Sterling high schools have turf fields.
There is plenty of room for gas and electric lines, without having to move existing lines, Blessman said.
Blessman is looking for ways to finance the proposed auditorium.
The district is paying off 2010 bonds in December 2020, and that money could be used for new bonds to finance an auditorium, he said.
If the district’s equalized assessed valuation increases at 2 percent a year over 15 years — an increase Blessman called very conservative — the district could keep the tax rate at $4.70 even with an $8 million auditorium.
Asked about consolidation, the superintendent said, “If it were to happen, the best school would stay open. We would want it to be Orion.”
Consolidation doesn’t save money, Blessman said.
Wind farms increase revenue for small schools, and the state’s new evidence-based funding is producing more money, the superintendent said.
The Orion school district receives about $32,000 a month from the facility sales tax, Blessman said. Officials can commit only 80 percent to bonds, and about 65 percent of that has been committed. Projects including renovating Charger Field and installing heating, cooling and air conditioning systems in the schools.
Property taxes pay for maintaining Charger Field and the HVAC systems, Warner resident Vicki Peterson said.
“In the end, the auditorium will be paid for by property taxes,” she said. “It’s a lot to swallow for generations to come.”
Tennant suggested a big fundraising campaign, such as the one Bob Mitton, Sam Shaw and Del Newton headed for the multi-purpose room and small gym at the high school.
Nathan DeBaillie, principal of Orion High School, said a lot of the money came from a state grant.
Nightingale emphasized the auditorium construction would not affect the property tax rate. She said her husband Fred is the first to call the superintendent about the tax rate.
If the board retired the bond in December 2020 and decided not to issue another bond to pay for an auditorium, the owner of a $100,000 home would save $131, Blessman said.
It’s not prudent to have no bonds, the superintendent said. If property tax caps ever came to Henry County, a district with no bonds would have to go to voters at the next election for permission to issue them.
Board member Karl Kane asked about a timeline for building an auditorium.
December 2020 is the earliest the district would have access to new bond money, borrowed at a lower interest rate than the old bond money, Blessman said.
The next steps are to process the comments made during the town hall, identify auditoriums to tour and get the architect involved, district officials said.
“If this gets legs and starts to move, we’ll have more discussions like this,” Blessman said.
District officials will be attending the state school board convention this month and will look for information about auditoriums, the superintendent said.