VCSC high school meetings start tonight

Seeking input:VCSC Superintendent Rob Haworth on Wednesday talks about the upcoming facilities meetings the corporation the district will conduct. The first of eight meetings is from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. tonight at Lost Creek Elementary.Tribune-Star/Joseph C. Garza 

As the Vigo County School Corp. tonight launches a series of community meetings related to high school facilities, many financial unknowns exist, Superintendent Rob Haworth said Wednesday.

The district is exploring whether federal COVID relief funds and proposed federal infrastructure dollars could be used for high school construction projects. If those federal dollars can be used, it could reduce the local taxpayer impact and possibly make a referendum unnecessary, officials say.

Another unknown that could have an impact is the current high cost of construction materials and labor.

The first of eight meetings is from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. tonight at Lost Creek Elementary. It will include a presentation by Haworth, questions and answers, small group breakouts and opportunities for public feedback.

The one “known” factor is that the district must address high school facility issues, Haworth said.

“Without question, VCSC high school facilities are in need of serious attention. Academic delivery is being significantly impacted by our facilities,” Haworth told reporters during a news conference.

Teachers are doing a great job, but “their ability to deliver a 21st Century education to our students I believe is being held back by our facilities,” he said.

Tonight’s presentation will be live-streamed on YouTube; virtual feedback sessions will take place at a later time.

“This week the school district begins a year-long discussion of identifying the best way for our community to address those facility needs,” Haworth said.

The district has eight options on the table, ranging from slight renovations to the three current high schools, to four smaller, brand new high schools — and “everything in between,” Haworth has said. Community discussions could lead to a concept that hasn’t yet been identified.

Again, Haworth spoke of the potential for “co-design,” or partnerships in which the construction projects can benefit others, including adult learners, senior citizens or nonprofits.

In discussing the current financial unknowns, Haworth said the county, city and school district “are set to receive millions of dollars from the federal government related to the pandemic.” But VCSC “is uncertain how those dollars can be spent and how that might impact a potential school building project.”

On Monday, the district learned officially it will receive $13.5 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief II funds.

The district also expects to receive ESSER III dollars in the future, and it is being told that funds could become available in the future through a proposed federal infrastructure bill, which also could impact a high school project.

Those “unknown” factors reframe the discussion, Haworth said. The public will be asked for their feedback on what they want to see in high school facilities.

While the district expects to present some overall ranges of potential costs during community meetings, it will not present specific cost estimates for the various options, given the financial unknowns, Haworth said.

“We’ll give some comparison to what a $100 million project might look like,” he said.

As to whether there will be a May 2022 referendum, he said if it were to occur then, the School Board would have to take action next January on a final project.

Until more details are known about possible use of federal funding, he is reluctant to say how likely that is. “Time will tell,” he said.

Federal COVID relief dollars also bring some timelines in terms of when they are spent.

With the federal ESSER II funding [COVID relief], it’s his understanding those dollars would have to be spent by December 2023, so if it ties into a high school project, “The clock is ticking,” Haworth said.

The cost of the high school projects, and taxpayer impact, will be a major determining factor.

“That’s why this is a community decision about what we want to do,” he said. “My hope is that we identify a project that is right for Vigo County.”

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

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