Voters headed to the polls in the Washington area have more than the city election to consider. There is also a ballot question that sounds complicated but is really simple.
“Shall Washington Community Schools issue bonds or enter into a lease to finance the 2020 Safety & Security Construction Project which includes the construction of a new middle school building, and safety, security and efficiency improvements to school facilities throughout the district, which is estimated to cost not more than $38 million and is estimated to increase the property tax rate for debt service by a maximum of $0.4829 per $100 assessed valuation?”
In more simple terms: Do you favor a $38 million construction project to add a new middle school and make some improvements in security to the remaining schools? A “yes” vote is to the project to move forward. A “no” vote is to stop it.
The centerpiece of the project is a new 174,000 square foot middle school. The school would house around 960 students in grades five, six, seven and eight. It includes 44 classrooms and labs, a band room and a pair of art rooms, media center, two cafeterias, a 1,200-seat gym and potentially a fieldhouse with room for three gyms.
The plans could also include a new football and track facility for the high school. Officials say that part of the project is an alternate and will be considered only if there is enough money to build the instructional facilities.
The road to the Washington Schools referendum was a lengthy trip that went in many directions. The project actually began two years ago with issues of overcrowding at the four elementary schools.
“At the time the predominant focus dealt with the situation with the elementaries,” said Washington Community Schools Superintendent Dr. Dan Roach. “Through a series of meetings over a year-and-a-half or two years a shift grew from simply looking at the elementaries to considering that the junior high was out of space and how do we address these problems.”
During the past couple of years Washington has reviewed Indiana Department of Education data, met with teachers and parents, surveyed parents and community members, held work sessions at all of the elementaries and public hearings trying to find the right project to solve the overcrowding.
“The middle school concept was an idea that evolved from community input,” said Roach. “Somewhere in the 14 public meetings we held, some people consistently attended the meeting, talked among themselves and shared with board members an idea to make space in some long-range planning and a phase of that would be to build a middle school that would free up space at the elementaries and it would allow for space to expand the programming at the high school.”
One of the people who attended those meetings was Jason Omer. He became convinced enough that the school should expand that he became the chairman for the political action committee “Yes 4 Washington.”
“I was concerned and felt we needed to do something for our school system and not pass the problem on to our kids,” said Omer. “I totally agree with the middle school project.”
School officials say the corporation has run out of space for a couple of reasons. One is a very slow but sustained growth in its student body. The other is the changing requirements that the corporation faces in terms of mandates and programs.
“The school district has evolved,” said Roach. “When these buildings were constructed, special education was not a factor throughout the United States. Classrooms that might have been used for the mainstream population throughout the district are being used for alternative means of education for those students. We have the English second language population and through federal mandate, we need classroom space for that population.”
An increased emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math has schools searching for additional space to provide those classes, and then at the high school level, the state unleashed a new graduation program called “Pathways” with additional emphasis on training.
“This year’s freshmen are under a new set of graduation requirements in the Graduations Pathways program,” said Roach. “It’s a good philosophy that was pushed out by the state board of education to provide our kids with more hands-on, realistic opportunities as they go through school. To do that, we need the space to allow those students to take whichever pathway they determine as the best fit. Over the last seven years we have added opportunities for those kids. If we are going to truly give them the experiences they need with the graduation pathways we need more classroom space.”
No plans to close elementaries
There’s no plan to close any of the current Washington elementaries. Officials believe they need the space now and will need it in the future.
“We don’t have the available space in our given buildings,” said Roach. “Simply removing the fifth and sixth out of our current structures will allow us to have some breathing room, but we will still have all four elementaries in operation if this passes.”
One thing the school corporation will do is get rid of the portable classrooms at North and Veale that officials have long considered to be a safety issue.
“We are trying to prepare for growth of the community itself,” said Roach. “We sit on I-69. If we see growth, we have no place now to house those students. This is more than a quick fix. It is an attempt to be forward thinking and how we plan for the district. The board and community have made it quite clear they don’t want a band-aid approach. We want to be visionary in our outlook for growth.”
“We are all in agreement the middle school is the first step in making this community thrive,” added Omer. “The middle school gives an immediate and long-term benefit to all 2,600 students by dealing with the overcrowding from the elementary to the high school.”