School Board considers connector corridor for students

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  Plans are moving forward by the Switzerland County School Board to build a connector corridor/additional educational space that will connect Switzerland County Middle School with Switzerland County High School.

  Switzerland County Superintendent of Schools Rod Hite said that the corridor will connect the west end of the middle school to the southeast door of the high school, allowing students traveling between the buildings for classes to move regardless of weather and in a much safer way.

  “Currently, if you consider students who go back and forth more than once during their school day, we have approximately 200 students moving back and forth,” Hite said. “And they walk that regardless of weather, and there is also a safety issue as they walk along the sidewalks near the parking lot. This is a project that has been considered for several years, and we feel good about moving forward.”

  Hite said that one of the considerations by the school board is making sure that any project undertaken does not impact the county taxpayers. Currently, the Switzerland County Endowment Corporation, using riverboat revenue sharing funds provided the Switzerland County Council, pays the Debt Service portion of the school’s portion of the property tax. The superintendent said that before proceeding, the board checked with both the endowment corporation and the county council to get assurance that the debt service will continue to be paid.

  Also factoring into this project is the availability of ESSER funds, which are funds that the federal government made available to school corporations during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Also making the timing appealing is that over the next three years, the school corporation will see three different debt service items be paid off — so replacing those funds with a combination of ESSER funds and a bond issue that will cover the difference brings the corporation’s debt service figure back to where it is now with the current debt load, although the debt will extend into future years.

  “The current school board is very on the fact that it doesn’t want to tie the hands of future boards in terms of debt service,” Hite said. “And they also don’t want to place any burden on the taxpayers, but this is something that has been talked about for years with regard to keeping our students out of the weather and safe as they move back and forth; and the ESSER money and paying off current debt allows us to provide this now.”

  But the addition will be much more than a corridor to move students.

  With plans to extend Highway 101 north from the Markland Dam, announced plans by factories across the river to continue expansion, and construction of housing additions in the near future means that the population of Switzerland County will grow — and so will the number of children in the schools.

  As a hedge against that possible growth (the corporation is already seeing yearly growth in the number of students enrolling here), plans were discussed to also construct educational space along the corridor — and possibly above it.

  “In our discussions, we talked about different options, including making educational space along the corridor for classes and subjects that are already being shared between the buildings,” Hite said. “Spaces like art and agriculture classes that don’t involve the work areas.”

  Another idea would be the designate the classrooms along the corridor as a “Ninth Grade Academy.” The superintendent said that statistics show that students who struggle and fall behind in the ninth grade are the ones who are at the most risk of not graduating. By focusing all of the freshman students in one area, it would allow teachers of those freshman subjects more opportunities to collaborate on ideas and struggles that students are having.

  If that area becomes designated for freshmen, Hite said classrooms in the high school building would open up to allow for future enrollment growth there.

  The classrooms could also be used to help absorb any future growth in lower grades.

  When the middle school was originally built, it housed students in grades six through eight. After a few years, it was determined that the sixth graders should return to the elementary buildings, putting the students back into an elementary setting and freeing up space at the middle school.

  A few years ago, the corporation made the decision to again bring all of the sixth grade students back to Vevay, housing them in a combination of classrooms at the middle school and at Jefferson-Craig Elementary. That decision was again reversed, sending sixth graders from Switzerland County Elementary back there; and using the middle school for seventh and eighth grade only.

  To allow for the return, in recent years additional classrooms have been added to both Switzerland County Elementary School and Jefferson-Craig Elementary School.

  With both elementaries again nearing capacity, additional classrooms at the middle school would allow sixth graders to again made it a traditional middle school, allowing both elementaries to be kindergarten through fifth grade.

  During discussions about possible alternatives, and seeing the growth that is taking place and could continue in the near future, those participating in the expansion discussion wondered if making the connector corridor two stories rather than one mind be an idea worth exploring.

  “As we discussed expansion, someone noted that it is less expensive to go up rather than out,” Hite said. “The middle school is already and two story building, and it has access to an elevator for students and staff who would need accommodations; and it allows us to consider even more educational space for the future —all without putting a burden on the taxpayers.”

  As the school board moved forward with discussions about the construction of the corridor and educational spaces, all across the country the cost of building materials exploded; and issues with transporting of goods meant that timelines to get materials to a construction site might be greatly delayed.

  Hite said that another part of the discussion was using some of the ESSER funds to upgrade the H/VAC system at Switzerland County Elementary School. The system functions fine, but it is an all electric facility, because there is no access to natural gas in that area. The board discussed the possibility of putting in a geo-thermal system at the school to reduce costs, but that cost more than doubled during the discussion phase.

  Hite said that since the current system is completely functional, the school board feels like upgrades can be made in the future using regular capital projects funds over time.

  So whether or not the corridor is one story or two — or whether or not it is built at all — lies in the hands of architects and general contractors who are working on cost options with an eye to the future of what the cost of construction materials might rise to. Hite said that he and the board feels positive that the corridor can be constructed using the ESSER funds and with a bond offering that would bring the corporation’s debt up to the current level as other debt is paid off — and should the bids and estimates hit those targets, he sees a bond offering some time in August; and site construction beginning soon.

  “One of the things that our architects and contractors have been looking at is the traffic patterns in and out of the schools,” Hite said. “They’ve flown drones over the campus to see the car lines that go in and out, and we want to make sure that any construction doesn’t have a major impact on our students or parents.”