South Tama County Board of Education approves bond issue for March 1 ballot

The South Tama County Board of Education voted 5-0 in favor of a plan to undertake a $26.8 million middle school bond referendum that will go before voters during a special election on March 1, 2022. The plan would relocate the middle school to the former Iowa Juvenile Home facility a few blocks south of the current building. Petitions required to place the issue on the ballot will begin circulating next week. -- Photo by Allison Graham

At its Monday meeting, the South Tama County Board of Education unanimously approved a plan to renovate the Iowa Juvenile Home (IJH) property in Toledo to address the district’s middle school space and facility needs.

The plan calls for renovating the property to provide a 21st century learning environment, with an addition to the north of the main IJH building.

The board also set a project budget of $26.8 million, including $15 million from General Obligation bonds, $9.8 million from sales tax bonds and $2 million from sales tax cash. Forty-four percent of the total project budget is scheduled from sales tax (not from property taxes).

Should the referendum proceed to a vote on March 1, voters will only be asked to vote on the $15 million general obligation bond portion of the project. The bonds would be loaned at a term of 20 years and would include refinancing of the debt for the 2017 high school addition.

The $26.8 million budget figure for the IJH project option comes after a third-party assessment of the IJH facility’s mechanical systems revealed a number of concerns that had not been addressed in Estes Construction’s initial estimate of $25 million that was floated during the community input sessions in November.

The IJH facility assessment, completed in early December by Des Moines-based engineering firm IMEG Corp., indicated a need to replace the rooftop heating and cooling units, the heat pumps in the geothermal system and the building automation system that controls lights and HVAC. Another concern brought forward in December was the condition of the building’s flat roof.

A closer inspection of the roof also presented a potential need for repair and partial replacement in different areas, a cost also not considered in the original estimate.

Monday’s vote follows the work of a community-led Facility Task Force. Over the course of several months, the task force examined the middle school’s facility needs and explored potential solutions. The current building is 106 years old and is considered one of the oldest–if not the oldest–functioning middle schools in the state. The lifespan of a typical middle school is 70 years.

Within the coming days, a petition will be circulated asking voters to call for a special school election on March 1 to vote on the middle school bond referendum. District officials said the petitions may not be available until early next week given the New Year’s Day holiday. That leaves the district less than two weeks to gather the 332 signatures required to call a special election.

Facility Task Force members are expected to begin circulating the petitions next week. Voters wishing to sign a petition can also stop in to the STC Central Office during business hours to sign one then.

If enough signatures are gathered, a bond issue will appear on the ballot Tuesday, March 1, 2022. In order for the bond issue to pass, it must receive a supermajority of 60 percent approval.

“As a board, we are pleased to be able to take this next step in this community-driven process to thoroughly examine and find a strong solution to our pressing middle school facility needs,” said Mandy Lekin, Board President. “Thanks to the input of our community members and the work of our community task force, we are confident that this plan represents a solution that will meet the needs of both our students and our local taxpayers.”

Leading up to the March 1 vote the district expects to hold multiple public information sessions for the community to ask questions and get a closer look at the proposed plan. Dates for the public sessions are yet to be announced.

The task force reviewed several options and recommended the renovation of the IJH facility after an evaluation of factors, including cost, logistics, space and community feedback. Two recent surveys with community members showed that they preferred the use of the IJH property when asked about potential options.

If voters approve a bond issue, the property tax rate levy would drop from $2.70 to $2.06 per $1,000 of taxable valuation. For the owner of a home assessed at $100,000, this presents an annual reduction of $31.54 ($2.63 per month). School taxes would decline $339.41 annually ($28.28 per month) on the average value of 400 acres of agricultural land. These decreases are possible even with an approved bond vote, as the district will have paid off the debt associated with the elementary school.

If voters do not approve a bond issue, property taxes would decrease $139 annually ($11.59 per month) for the owner of a home assessed at $100,000. Taxes would drop $1,356 annually ($113 per month) on the average value of 400 acres of agricultural land. However, the middle school facility needs would remain.

The district’s tentative timeline should the bond issue be approved in March would be to begin the bidding process in late 2022 or early 2023 with hopes of breaking ground in the spring of 2023.

A website has been developed with additional information regarding the school district’s process through the Middle School Facility Project at www.southtamabond.org.

Toledo backs IJH plan

Following the Dec. 13 school board meeting, another lingering question was how the State of Iowa, who owns the vacant 27-acre IJH property, was going to address issues like demolition of the cottage buildings, treatment for asbestos and radon and the closure of the tunnels lying underneath the campus.

At the meeting, Tama County Economic Development Director Katherine Ollendieck said an informal agreement had been brokered between the City of Toledo and the State Department of Administrative Services (the state agency that manages the property). The city would initially take ownership of the IJH campus and would be utilized as a pass-through for contracting the demolition and abatement work as they would be more eligible to apply for state-funded assistance should the costs exceed expectations.

Once the demolition and abatement work is completed, the property would then transfer to the school district for them to begin renovation and construction.

Earlier in the year, city and school officials said discussions with Iowa DAS Director Adam Steen led to a verbal commitment of $750,000 from the Iowa Economic Development Authority’s Vacant State Building Demolition Fund to be put toward the demolition of the IJH cottage buildings.

At the Dec. 13 meeting Ollendieck said she was confident final costs for demolition and abatement would end up above the $750,000 mark but that if the city were the entity conducting the work, the state could make enough additional funding available to cover the difference.

It remains unclear where the additional funding would come from. The city has also not received more than discussion and verbal agreements from the state binding them to the proposed plan.

The same night the school board met to approve the IJH project plan and budget, the Toledo City Council met to vote on a resolution of support of the collaboration between South Tama and the City in regards to the IJH campus as the proposed site of the new middle school. The council voted 3-1 in favor of the project and will work in the upcoming month to apply for the Demolition Fund Grant and to begin the process for requesting an asbestos study.

Ollendieck was present at the Dec. 27 meeting and delivered a proposed timeline of steps between the city and school. Should the bond issue pass in March, the proposal shows that the city will issue requests for proposals for the demolition work and have the property transferred from the state to the city.

The asbestos remediation contract would then be awarded in April with a target completion date in June. The demolition contract award would follow in June which could lead to completion of the demolition by October 2022.