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January 11, 2014

Windber work a long process: Project could stretch over a decade, official says

WINDBER — Districtwide changes to Windber Area’s schools won’t happen over a summer or a school year.

In fact, district Superintendent Rick Huffman said Thursday it might take a multiple- phase project stretching over eight to 10 years to address needs at Windber’s middle and high school, football field and elementary building.

The district’s budgetary constraints will play a major role in what projects are undertaken at the three locations – what they can pay for and when – he said, just days after a Harrisburg firm outlined a long list of options for board officials to consider.

With the district looking to undertake renovations – as well as major needs like retaining wall work, roof repairs and security upgrades – a soon-to-be-expiring bond issue will give it flexibility to delve into a potentially $17 million project, Huffman said.

“We have two years left on a bond issue that dates back to the last school project,” Huffman said, referring to the district’s 10-year-old administrative office addition.

At $1.1 million a year, those bond payments could be redirected toward new work. The dwindling balance could also be refinanced at a lower rate before then for the new work, Huffman said.

“Basically,” he said, “that $1.1 million a year is what we can afford to spend.”

The district is vying to make its yet-to-be-determined upgrades without a tax increase. Given current state-imposed taxing constraints, seeking to raise revenue through a tax hike would do little to help fund a massive project, Huffman noted.

“Our index allows us to raise taxes about a half-mill. That’s only $40,000,” he noted. “That’s not the kind of money that makes a difference.”

At Wednesday night’s meeting, board President Timothy Tokarsky said the school board will now have the challenge of making a priority list of needs and wants the district can afford. After that, the board would look at the number of phases that might be needed, Huffman said.

Harrisburg-based McKissick Associates has outlined millions of dollars in suggestions for all three facilities, including stadium upgrades and redesign concepts for the middle/high school complex that could change its look both inside and out.

The firm drew up a plan that would renovate the school as-is.

Total project estimates for the various proposals – counting field work and improvements to both schools – ranged from approximately $19 million to nearly $24 million, but the firm noted the board can cut costs by dropping unneeded suggestions, such as $1.5 million in work on the high school auditorium.

“We’re here to work for you,” McKissick Associates President Vern McKissick said.

David Hurst covers Windber for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tddavidhurst.

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