Orion Schools consider new facilities

by Mindy Carls correspondent

With the Orion school district set to pay off bonds as 2020 ends, the school board explained its options in a virtual town hall last month.

Superintendent Joe Blessman said the district is paying off bonds issued in 2010, which had an interest rate of 4.35 percent. Current interest rates are half that.

Bonds issued in 2009 and 2018 will be paid off in 2021.

Earlier this year, architect Jeff Sandberg, an Orion resident, presented options for an early learning center, which would replace two portable trailers now used for preschool classes at C.R. Hanna Elementary School.

Sandberg also reviewed board visits to auditoriums in nearby schools.

Kendall King of Kings Financial Consulting attended the town hall in person.

The district’s overall debt limit is $20 million, King said. With $2 million in outstanding debt, the district can borrow up to $18 million.

Orion receives $450,000 in facility sales tax revenue the district can use for debt payments, the consultant said.

Also, the district levies $725,000 annually for bond payments, King said.

He pointed out a big chunk of the district’s property valuation is farmland, King said. Because it is undervalued now, farmland is expected to increase in valuation over the next 10 to 15 years.

With interest rates the lowest they have been in 50 years, the question is, “What does the district want to do?” King asked.

Orion could borrow up to $12.5 million to be repaid over 20 years without raising the property tax rate, the consultant said.

A 4,000-square foot early learning center with two rooms, added on to C.R. Hanna, would cost $1.3 million, Blessman said.

At $725,000 a year, it would take two years to pay off the early learning center, King said.

Are two classrooms enough? asked board member Aaron Kayser. He said he would like to build four classrooms.

C.R. Hanna principal R.C. Lowe said the school would like to have a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) classroom with lots of hands-on activities.

Public comments included a suggestion for a STEAM room, which would include art.

Doubling the square footage would cost $2.6 million, which could be paid off in five years, Blessman said.

C.R. Hanna projects could include redoing the front entrance so visitors have to go through the office, Lowe said. Also, the staff bathrooms date to the 1950s and are very small.

The grade school also could use therapy rooms allowing the speech pathologist to use play-based activities and to work with groups, said Orion High School principal Nathan DeBaillie, whose wife is the speech therapist.

It would be most cost effective to borrow one amount to cover both the early learning center and the auditorium, King said.

Blessman said the auditorium is estimated to cost $12 million, but some features could be removed to reduce the cost.

Before making a decision about new facilities, some of the board members want to see the results of this fall’s evaluation of the major systems in district buildings, Nedved said. How long are the roofs and the mechanical systems going to last before they need major repairs or replacements?