District may tap stimulus funds for buildings

Rob Haworth

The Vigo County School Corp. is considering whether to use $24 million in federal stimulus dollars for high school facility updates, Superintendent Rob Haworth told a group at Indiana State University on Thursday.

In addition, while high school facilities are a major focus, he also spoke of the district's goal to raise the teacher base salary in Vigo County to $40,000 within two years, consistent with expectations established by state leaders. "We believe we will get there," he said.

Haworth is talking to community groups to seek feedback on the district's eight high school facility options currently under review; the district hopes to narrow it to three concepts by August. Sixteen university employees attended Thursday's presentation at Hulman Memorial Student Union.

ESSER III funds could potentially be used for high school HVAC and school design, although those federal dollars must be used by the end of 2024. Use of those funds for a high school project could reduce the taxpayer impact.

But those stimulus dollars also could be used for other VCSC facility needs, freeing up other funding sources that potentially could go to a high school project. "We're still trying to decide that," Haworth said after the presentation.

The district's ESSER III allocation is $30.5 million, and $6 million is slated to be used for learning loss.

In speaking to the ISU employees, Haworth said of the high school facilities discussion, "This is truly a community decision. This is a 50-year decision."

He showed slides of infrastructure problems, especially at North Vigo and South Vigo, and presented the eight options under review. Both North and South are 50 years old.

While some suggest the schools have not been maintained, Haworth — who celebrated his third year as VCSC superintendent Thursday — said he'd make the argument that the district has extended the life of North and South far beyond what was expected when they were built.

Many in the community who have already provided feedback would prefer new facilities and even four, smaller high schools, with the addition of an eastside one. But such a project would be costly, Haworth said. Also, 80% of the community has no current, direct connection to schools, including children or grandchildren who attend, which could impact the outcome of a referendum.

To provide some perspective, he pointed out that a 493,000 square-foot high school built in Plainfield in 2011 cost $82 million; in 2023 costs, it would be $110 million.

As the community and school board deliberate these issues, several things need to be kept in mind, he said.

Enrollment is declining, and the district continues efforts to reduce expenses so that once an operational referendum comes to an end after 2027, it will have a balanced budget.

Also, improved high schools should provide students with the skills needed for the jobs of today and tomorrow and include up-to-date technology, flexible classrooms and possibly makerspace, or collaborative work spaces.

He emphasized co-design as a way to reduce the footprint of high schools by developing multi-use facilities; that could include shared spaces with colleges/universities, neighborhoods or iconic buildings in a community. "What facilities do we currently have that can be used differently ... or what can we do together," he said.

Are there projects VCSC could undertake with ISU or other local colleges "to make our dollars go farther?" he said.

With discussion of facilities, Haworth said the community cannot lose sight of another priority — improving teacher pay as well as pay of other VCSC staff. "We still need to create a viable financial future for those teachers" and other district employees, he said.

The Legislature approved additional funding for public education in the last session and strongly recommended that school districts set starting salaries for new teachers at $40,000.

Among those attending Thursday's session was Nancy Brattain Rogers, whose two children graduated from Terre Haute North Vigo High in 2017 and 2019 School. "I know the condition of the facility is poor. My hope would be, when I look at my colleagues who have younger children, that their children will be able to attend high school in a better, more state of the art facility," she said after the session.

"Clearly, we have to do something," said Rogers, ISU's vice president for university engagement. Whatever option is chosen, "It needs to be more state of the art, with better technology and more flexible spaces ... We want it to be safe. Schools weren't designed with the safety concerns that we've developed over the past few decades."

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or at sue.loughlin@tribstar.com Follow Sue on Twitter @TribStarSue.

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