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By Traci Chapman
El Reno Public School District will see major new construction, thanks to an overwhelming majority of voters last week approving a $45 million bond issue.
Almost 73 percent – 1,208 votes of 1,661 ballots cast – were made in favor of $44.835 million in new construction and improvements, including a new third- and fourth-grade center to be built adjacent to Roblyer Middle School. Of 1,678 votes cast on a second proposal, 1,240 – 73.9 percent – approved $500,000 for purchase of new buses.
School district and city officials alike were celebrating Wednesday, the day after their combined efforts helped spur passage of the proposal. It was a far cry from November 2011, when the district’s last bond plan was narrowly defeated by voters, school board president Steven Jensen said.
“That was frustrating, it was difficult, but we came at this a different way, and we are very happy. I’m just so grateful to everyone – to our citizens who saw what we needed and came through,” Jensen said.
The vote was bigger than the school district itself, in more ways than one, Mayor Matt White said.
“We’ve been talking about how far El Reno has come with the capital improvements and the other things we’ve done, but what’s been lacking is our school district and the aging buildings that have so many issues,” White said. “Now we can begin to change that.”
Jensen and White worked side by side with their fellow respective board members. It was a historic partnership not previously seen in El Reno and it extended beyond the two entities, board member Dr. Dorrie Parrott said.
“I think this was a whole community effort – city, Council, school board, individuals, churches and civic groups,” Parrott said. “It’s a great plan, it’s definitely great for our students and district, but it’s also good for our community.”
Under the plan, the new $13.6 million third- and fourth-grade center is the largest single expenditure, but each school site will see improvements and changes as work unfolds, board member Justin Martin said.
“While some of these schools need more work than what this will fund, this is a great start,” he said.
Real property will be assessed an additional 6.51 percent tax, which increases El Reno’s millage from 27 mills to 33.6 mills. Millage rates are the amount per $1,000 used to calculate property taxes. El Reno’s historical rate has been 27 mills, said Jordan Smith, the project’s financial adviser. The increase would be a one-time, flat hike, which would fall off after the project financing is complete, projected for 12 years or 2025, he said.
Among improvements will be new secure entryways and safe rooms, as well as air conditioning in the combined cafeteria-gyms and five new classrooms each at Hillcrest and Rose Witcher elementary schools at a combined estimated cost of $4.1 million. Three classrooms will be added to Roblyer Middle School, which will be converted into a fifth- and sixth-grade center. Renovations at Roblyer are expected to run about $1.9 million.
The district’s downtown campus will see not only a lot of change now, it will be set for further growth in the future, Jensen said. As part of the bond package, the district will purchase First Baptist Church’s property. FBC is constructing a new church on land it bought from the city of El Reno, adjacent to the city’s new Public Safety Center.
While the sale isn’t yet final, Jensen said he hoped to bring a final proposal to school board members during their regular meeting, scheduled for Monday.
“There are a few small things, but I think we’re in good shape on it,” he said.
Along with the land purchase, a new cafeteria and kitchen addition will be built to El Reno High School, as well as a new science and math wing. About $1.1 million is slated for improvements for Etta Dale Junior High School, with another $9.4 million allocated to renovations and additions to EHS. Etta Dale and Lucus Hall will serve seventh- and eighth-graders, while EHS will be expanded to encompass ninth grade.
Technology upgrades, as well as new buses, round out the plan. It will probably be 30 days before any type of schedule for improvements is in place, although work at some schools is hoped to begin over the summer, Jensen said.
“That’s something we don’t have in place yet, but we should know more fairly quickly,” he said.
Lincoln and Webster elementary schools will be taken off-line under the plan, and $320,000 was built into the proposal to either demolish or otherwise deal with the buildings. Several ideas have been floated for the two locations, from parks to construction of housing, but nothing has been decided at this point, Jensen said.
“That’s where our partnership continues, as we decide what’s best for Lincoln and Webster,” he said.
The election came just days after El Reno’s new superintendent, Craig McVay, took the reins at the school district. While Jensen and other board members praised the new superintendent in “jumping in to help get this passed,” McVay himself praised not only the board, teachers, principals and other district staff, but also his predecessor, Ranet Tippens.
“Ranet Tippens, Steven Jensen, Bob Lee, Andy Wedman, Justin Martin and Dorrie Parrott spent countless hours meeting with stakeholders to come up with revision after revision of the measure so that a long-term vision could be brought to a vote,” McVay said. “So many members of the community volunteered their time, expertise and resources to make sure that the proposal was acceptable to a majority of the district.”
“It got to where it’s a need, not a want, and I think people saw that,” Martin said. “It was funny because our comments changed from let’s move El Reno forward to we’re moving El Reno forward.”
“This was something that people came together for, they worked together to make this a reality,” Parrott said. “Good things come when that happens.”