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Ranking system: First things first

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Steve Forster, the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.’s director of operations, pulls a 2-inch thick binder from the shelf of his office and describes what’s inside as the backbone of the school system’s proposed $23.5 million repair plan for 14 school buildings.

The black, ringed binder is crammed with school condition reports carefully updated since 2011; and it outlines where and why school officials want to spend money during the next two or three years to replace battered roofs, repair clunky heating-and-air units or upgrade security on many campuses.

“We’re proud of the process,” Forster said. “This ($23.5 million) project is actually part of a longer-term look at our facilities and what we need to do to bring schools up to our standards. It’s our guiding light.”

Much of the report is color-coded with school-by-school needs divided into four numerical rankings. A score of 1 in a particular column means no improvement was needed in that category, whether it was plumbing, energy efficiency or classroom technology.

Central Middle School, built in 2007, scores mostly 1s in 41 repair categories because it’s practically a brand-new campus, and officials consider it the standard by which all other school buildings in the district can be measured, Forster said.

But, if a school’s scores were 3 or 4, it meant renovations, repairs or replacement of equipment should be strongly considered or was seen as absolutely necessary to secure student safety or improve the learning environment.

“The whole idea was to come up with a scoring system that shows how a building on one campus compares to other buildings at every other school,” Forster said.

Here are some examples of particular school scores and how part of the $23.5 million would go to fix the problems listed:

  • Columbus North High School got the weakest score (4) for its sports facilities and football stadium’s condition. So, the school is in line for $2 million to replace or refurbish its football bleachers and renovate an aging press box. It also would get another $2 million to renovate the seating area in the main gym and fix a leaky swimming pool, among other projects.
  • Smith Elementary got a rank of 3 for much of its mechanical systems, outdated plumbing and poor energy efficiency. The school is in line for an upgrade of its air-conditioning system and ventilators, and the bond money also would pay to replace a 1968-era boiler while consolidating two boiler plants into a single, more-efficient unit.
  • McDowell Education Center, originally built in 1960, got marks of 3 or 4 in 38 categories, and it’s in line for $1.95 million to install a new fire alarm system, replace ventilators, repair sidewalks, renovate four classroom pods, remodel offices and renovate the school’s main corridor, among other projects.

Forster said the $23.5 million in new spending (actually it will be slightly less after the cost of issuing bonds, paying attorneys’ fees and other incidentals are taken care of) doesn’t fix every loose floorboard, leaky roof or aging boiler on schools’ campuses.

“We’re trying to address the most significant problems that we have identified,” Forster said. “Maintenance is an ongoing thing.”

In deciding what to fix and how quickly, school system officers also interviewed teachers and principals and spent $50,000 in consulting fees to hire outside experts who reviewed various mechanical issues on various campuses.

Some school repair needs are being delayed because $23.5 million can’t pay for everything that’s needed, Forster said.

For instance, an updated roof repair list (with buildings ranked in order of how soon they should get new roofs installed) dictates that Northside Middle School is next up for a $2 million new top.

That work is included in the $23.5 million spending plan.

But Parkside Elementary, which ranks immediately below Northside on the roof replacement list, will have to wait for a completely new roof, said Loren Brummett, director of projects for the school district. That’s simply because Northside’s roof seems to be in rougher shape, and Parkside probably can get by with a few more patches for now, he said.

“When you get to the point where you’re patching the patches, you’ve got to do something,” Brummett said.

He said a couple of other schools are in line for roof repairs this summer, apart from the $23.5 million spending initiative. In those cases, the roofs will be fixed using insurance proceeds the school system got after buildings suffered hail or other weather damage.

The school system’s fresh $23.5 million menu of repairs is being debated, just as a previous $89 million project that paid for other improvements at Columbus North and Columbus East high schools wraps up. Bonds issued to pay for the previous high school project will require debt payments for 16 more years, school records show.

The school system says the $23.5 million in new spending won’t raise property taxes beyond rates county residents already have been paying.

School officials and consultant CSO Architects of Indianapolis hope to put together a final schedule detailing how to spread the work over the next two to three years. Construction on some elements on the school repair list could start as early as this summer, if the school board approves borrowing and spending the money.

Forster said maintenance and repair schedules require constant tweaking.

“I’ve been here since 2004, and we did about $20 million in school repairs in 2005-2006. Then, we did the high school project ($89 million for North and East highs combined),” he said. “We’ve tried to be frugal with spending all along, and address the most serious problems first.”

But $23.5 million alone won’t take care of every need on every school campus, Forster said.

“It will give us a solid foundation, but we’ll have to continue identifying the next most serious problems to solve,” he said. “These things have to be updated on a regular basis.”

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