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Granite seeks long-term plan to replace, renovate district’s aging schools

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SOUTH SALT LAKE — If the walls of many of Granite School District's schools could talk, the topics would likely resonate with baby boomers: the specter of the Cold War, the civil rights movement, the growing popularity of rock 'n' roll and the wonder of space travel.

That's because 44 of the district's schools are more than 50 years old. A couple even date back to the 1930s.

Not only are the buildings showing their age, ongoing facility reports by engineers indicate they require costly repairs and renovations, which can include replacing heating, cooling and lighting systems to major structural upgrades.

Sixteen of Granite District's elementary schools, four of its junior highs and the Brockbank campus of Cyprus High School each meet a threshold that 85 percent of the building needs repairs or renovation, according to the reports.

Beyond systems overhauls, many schools need significant security and seismic upgrades.

The school district's overarching goal is that in the event of an earthquake, all students, faculty and staff safely evacuate schools and that schools can be swiftly reoccupied once structural engineers give the OK, said Granite School District communications director Ben Horsley.

But when schools are a half-century old, there's a likelihood that "the next day, we're not using that building again," he said.

Recognizing the district's critical building needs, the Granite School District Board of Education has embarked on a long-term planning effort intended to address future needs.

A campaign, The Future of Our Schools, is reaching out to school communities and registered voters seeking input on the conditions of the district's schools and possible scenarios to pay for needed new school construction and renovation.

"The going rate" for new school construction is $15 million for an elementary school, $40 million for a junior high and $80 million for a high school, supposing the school district owns the land, according to Don Adams, Granite's assistant superintendent of support services who oversees buildings and maintenance.

Presently, there is no "ask" before taxpayers, Horsley said.

"We want people to know we're having a conversation about your tax dollars and how they're being used," he said.

But the community conversation will eventually lead to the school board determining the best course for the future and a means to raise revenue for new schools and renovations.

One scenario envisions a single property tax increase that would mean a $259.88 tax hike for a house valued at $250,000.

Another option is to place before voters a series of school building bonds every four to five years over a 20- to 30-year period. The annual tax impact would depend on the size of the bonds. If voters turn down a bond or bonds, building projects would be put on hold.

A hybrid approach would place before voters an initial 10-year, $261 million bond issue, after which the district would maintain tax revenue.

That would mean an initial property tax increase of $183.43 on the residence valued at $250,000.

While no decisions have been made, the school board prefers the hybrid model because it would provide "the most successful cash flow and the least amount of impact to taxpayers," according to The Future of our School website.

Under state law, bond elections must be conducted in November. If the district's education board plans to move forward with a financial plan, the issue would either go before voters in conjunction with municipal elections in November or mid-term election in November 2018.

One complicating factor is a possible citizen initiative to increase the state income tax rate to raise $750 million for education. Our Schools Now could seek to put the issue before voters statewide in 2018.

That may be confusing for voters, Horsley said, because only locally generated property taxes can be used for school construction and renovation. State income tax funds instructional programs.

The local school board is also mindful of the district's demographics, which include signficant numbers of students whose households qualify for free or reduced-price school lunch, Horsley said.

"Most of our school district has some lower-socioeconomic areas. The board has been particularly concerned about impacts on property taxes," he said.

For the time being, the school board is in listening mode and board members encourage property owners and patrons to visit the website to learn more about the district's schools, its current building and renovation strategy and possible scenarios to address future building needs, Horsley said.

Then, patrons are urged to complete the online survey.

"All we're asking for at this point is people's feedback," Horsley said.