Officials in Hannibal are talking about what to do with more than $6 million in leftover state construction money, now that the school district’s big construction project has officially come in well under budget.
Voters approved a $26.9 million package of improvements across the district. It did not add to local taxes because the local share of the project was picked up by the state under its special EXCEL aid program for certain kinds of school improvements.
How did a construction project come in so far under budget? “We bid at the right time,” said Superintendent of Schools Mike DiFabio.
The deep recession left a lot of construction companies hungry for business, so prices throughout the project came in well under the amount anticipated, DiFabio said.
There are two options for the remaining money: Use it, or lose it. Since no local taxpayer funds were involved, the money can’t be given back to taxpayers. So DiFabio, administrators and members of the Board of Education began talking Monday night about what could be done.
A long list of minor repairs to the district’s building was discussed briefly. Board members asked administrators to figure out the cost of each item and to figure out which items might fit into a project the state would approve.
But most of the discussion was saved for a major potential project: What to do about the district’s bus garage?
The garage sits very close to the high school gym, and the gasoline the buses use is stored there, too. The garage is too small to allow the district to buy the large, 81-passenger buses that would allow some consolidation of bus routes. The building does not meet some state regulations. Older bus lifts break down frequently. And an architect’s report says the building is aging, with some systems 5 to 10 years from the end of their recommended lives.
It is not possible to rebuild the garage on its present site, DiFabio said. The state would not approve the plans because of the closeness to the high school. “If that building wasn’t there, we couldn’t build it there,” he said.
But the district may not have sufficient land to build the bus garage elsewhere, either. The only large chunk of available land is the main parking lot at the high school. While the district would gain parking spots in the area vacated by the current garage, board member Linda Warrick noted that the main parking lot serves community members coming to the auditorium.
The district can’t just buy land. Voters have to approve any purchase, and there’s no money for buying land right now. Board member Mike LaFurney asked if the district has approached the town of Hannibal about creating a combined garage for buses and town vehicles. “What can we do for the town, and what can they do for us,” he asked.
The board asked DiFabio to talk with the town about the issue. DiFabio noted that the town would have to deed land to the school district for the garage because it’s against the law for a school to spend money on land that does not belong to the district.
“If we’re going to look at this, we’re going to have to look at other property,” said board member Madeline Pittorf.
“Why do we have to spend money,” asked Warrick. “We’re in a budget crisis.”
“It would be irresponsible not to look at the bus garage,” said board President Matt Henderson. “If we’re going to continue to transport the kids, we’re not being fair to our staff. We need to take a serious look at this.”
But board member Mirelle Watts said that the long list of minor items seemed like a better place to spend the construction money, “even though we only have a ten year window with the bus garage.”
The board voted to spend $12,000 on an architectural study of the garage and its possibilities.