Covington must wait another year for new elementary school

Residents in Covington will have to wait even longer for a replacement to Covington Elementary School, following a decision by the Kent School Board to delay by one year the start of construction on the $27 million project.

The district has been trying to complete construction of the new school for several years, but funding options have routinely fallen short.

Following a short presentation March 25 from Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Fred High in which three options were presented, the board voted to follow the administration’s recommendation and delay the project by a year.

The board voted last year to begin construction on a new school beginning this summer, with a tentative opening date of September 2010. The current Covington Elementary School is one of the oldest in the district. It first opened its doors in the 1950s and was last remodeled in the 1980s.

Changes in the economic climate, however, have made construction difficult this year. High’s presentation focused on three options: Starting construction this summer, starting next summer or putting the project off for several years.

For each option, High explained, there were advantages, disadvantages and risks involved with the choice.

For example, starting construction this summer could save the district money in construction costs, as the downturn in the economy has increased interest in construction projects.

“We’ve had far more bidding on our projects this year than we have in the past several years,” High said.

Building this summer also would lower costs and get the school open sooner, but the disadvantages could include delay of other projects, would commit the district to the project and could turn the old school into a liability unless some other entity could be found to lease the older structure.

But according to High, the risk associated with starting construction is the district’s lack of $19 million in funds in hand now. Funding for the project is based on the district selling property, as well as state matching funds – which High said could be in jeopardy this year as the state battles its own budget deficit.

If the district were to commit to the project, it would be committing to that money.

An expected drop in assessed valuation – due to falling property values – could mean a potential increase in the tax rate and High said the district was committed to maintaining a “consistent” tax level that may not be possible if the district sold the bonds necessary to construct the new school.

“It may be impractical to sell bonds next year,” High said. “If we were to sell bonds now, it could increase the (tax) rate.”

However, pushing the project off by 3-5 years would mean having to go through all of the permitting and preparation processes again, making it too expensive to wait too long on the project.

The interim choice – waiting until next year – means the district has more time to sell the property it needs to bank funds for Covington, as well as making it more likely the state produces matching construction funds, plus keep bonds off of next year’s maintenance and operations levy vote, which High said was the district’s top priority.

Delaying only a year also means that most of the $1.8 million approved by voters in 2006 for work on the current school could still be applied to the new building.

Despite the change, the board, and High, reiterated the commitment to building a new elementary school in Covington.

“It has been our dream to get this school up and running but we also have to be responsible,” High said.

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