School moratorium concerns industry: State officials studying whether too much money is being spent on non-educational construction projects

  • Comments
  • Print

Designers of educational facilities are expressing concern over the future of school construction in Indiana as state officials mull guidelines that could bring changes to the process.

Upon taking office in January, Gov. Mitch Daniels temporarily halted new school-construction borrowing to give the Department of Local Government Finance time to develop guidelines to ensure taxpayer money is spent wisely.

The 120-day moratorium is a result of Daniels’ theory that school corporations spend too much money on projects unrelated to instruction.

In an executive order he signed Jan. 19, Daniels said “the state must take measures to reprioritize the objectives of its education spending … in a manner that places greater emphasis on academic achievement and less emphasis on the size and cost of our school buildings and their nonacademic facilities.”

At Franklin Central High School, for instance, school officials spent $4.3 million on a football stadium that was com- pleted last year.

School administrators and architects say local taxpayers can influence plans to build or renovate school facilities by mounting petition drives aimed at halting construction projects.

In early February, residents began a revolt against a $21.6 million plan to renovate Brownsburg High School. The petition drive ends April 30.

And a group of residents in the Indianapolis Public Schools district were unsuccessful in their effort to derail the corporation’s 10-year, $832 million plan to improve 29 schools.

The final projects of the first phase to improve IPS schools are under construction. Taxpayers have approved the second stage, but a hearing before the State Board of Tax Commissioners has not been set. The timetable for completion of the renovations should continue on schedule, as long as the moratorium does not last longer than 120 days, said Deb Kunce, program manager for local architectural firm Schmidt Associates. The firm is the administrator for the IPS project.

“If the local community wants it, how appropriate is it if the state steps in?” asked Kunce, who also serves as president of the American Institute of Architects’ local chapter. “All of our [AIA] members agree that we want to construct buildings that are cost-effective and necessary.”

Building projects clearing a 30-day public hearing period and 30-day petition drive are heard by the State Board of Tax Commissioners, which forwards a recommendation to the commissioner of the DLGF. While it has been unusual for the DLGF to deny requests, that could change when the agency scrutinizes proposals more under the new guidelines.

DLGF Commissioner Melissa Henson said the moratorium gives her office the opportunity to conduct a statewide analysis of school construction projects to compare costs and analyze whether districts are spending too much on non-academic efforts.

“We’re looking at the academic vs. nonacademic spending,” Henson said. “We will present a report to the governor that will be what we perceive as guidance on school construction projects in the state of Indiana. It will give school corporations a better idea of what we’re looking at.”

The DLGF has the authority to consider such factors of a project as enrollment patterns, age and condition of current school facilities, cost per square foot, and the effect completion would have on the corporation’s tax rate.

School districts in central Indiana have $870 million in projects in the works, an amount unlikely to decline anytime soon. A 2000 report from the Government Accountability office said the average Indiana public school was 42 years old, and 29 percent needed extensive repairs or replacement

In Zionsville, $107 million will be spent to build a new elementary school, middle school and sports complex. Although the projects have cleared approval, school officials still are leery of the governor’s proposal to alter the approval process.

“We are somewhat concerned because we feel like, at a local level, we have a better understanding what our community wants, expects and supports,” said Bob Bostwick, the school district’s projects administrator. “We just feel better doing it locally than having the state impose [its] guidelines.”

To argue the position of the architectural community, AIA members have provided information to the DLGF, which oversees the budgets of all local governmental units in the state.

Any school building project that might not move forward under the new guidelines will hurt not only architectural firms, Kunce said, but also contractors and others who provide construction jobs.

Tom Neff, vice president of SchenkelShultz Architecture, concurred. SchenkelShultz is the architect for the $33.2 million Westfield Middle School and the $30.9 million Ben Davis High School Ninth Grade Center.

“Ultimately, it will affect the industry,” Neff said. “The administration is conveying that there’s irresponsibility on the part of design professionals. We’re trying to show Indiana school construction costs are not that different than anywhere else in the country.”

At first blush, school construction costs in the southern part of the nation might seem less expensive than in the Midwest, Neff and other architects said. But that’s only because schools in much of the South have “open-air” corridors-unenclosed hallways that reduce the amount of construction and costs, they said.

Dan Mader, president and CEO of the local office of Fanning/Howey Associates Inc., serves as legislation chairman for the AIA. He said the group is very concerned about the ability of school corporations to control their own destiny.

Fanning/Howey is the architect for a $91 million initiative to build three schools in Carmel and for the $71.5 million Fishers High School, among other educational projects.

CSO Architects is the designer of $32.6 million in renovations at Arlington High School. CSO Partner Ray Bordwell said he is hopeful calmer heads will prevail and state officials will pull back on their proposal to make changes to the process.

“Because of a couple of construction projects, which in someone’s opinion might have seemed excessive, it’s now going to put a moratorium on districts’ ability to build,” Bordwell said. “I’m afraid it’s going to hit in a place that can least afford to be hit.”

But Jane Jankowski, the governor’s spokeswoman, said lately she’s read several newspaper stories telling of taxpayers’ questioning their school boards about proposed construction projects.

“I think [the moratorium] is opening up a dialogue about the way projects are progressing,” she said.

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.