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Vandalia-Butler schools plan renewal levy, study facilities options

Helke Elementary is one of the older buildings in the Vandalia-Butler schools. District leadership is studying both academic and facility needs for Vandalia schools. Submitted photo.
Helke Elementary is one of the older buildings in the Vandalia-Butler schools. District leadership is studying both academic and facility needs for Vandalia schools. Submitted photo.

Vandalia-Butler schools will have a renewal tax levy on the March ballot, at the same time the district continues studying its future school building and academic needs.

The district hopes voters will renew the existing 7.03-mill tax for another 10 years. If approved, it would raise the same $4.45 million per year that it has for more than two decades, and it would not change residents’ tax rates.

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Superintendent Robert O’Leary said the levy, if passed, will allow Vandalia-Butler to keep some of the things that have been reinstated in recent years, including art, music and physical education classes as well as current busing levels.

“This money is critical for our day-to-day operations. It keeps things as they are,” school Treasurer Eric Beavers said, adding that V-B’s last levy that increased tax rates was six years ago. That 6.99-mill levy narrowly passed in 2013 after being rejected twice the previous year.

Vandalia-Butler’s new five-year financial forecast – prepared by Beavers and approved by the school board — shows that spending increased by 6-7 percent annually the past two years, with a similar projection for this year. The district was in the black for the year in 2016-17 and 2017-18, then went $1.8 million in the red last school year.

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In 2021-24, the district projects spending to increase 2-3 percent per year, but for revenues to grow even less than that. The forecast projects that if the renewal levy does not pass, the district would run out of money in summer 2022. If it passes, the forecast projects the district would be OK until summer 2024.

While the levy would solidify day-to-day operational funding in a district with basically flat enrollment numbers, school and community leaders continue to study what to do regarding the district’s school buildings.

O’Leary said two separate committees are working on that – an education visioning team, as well as a community advisory team that will develop a facilities master plan. He said the groups hope to present recommendations to the community and the school board by the end of this school year.

After Vandalia-Butler voters approved a bond issue in 2008, the district built the new Morton Middle School, renovated the high school and did some renovation at elementary schools by 2012.

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O’Leary said the Demmitt, Helke and Smith school buildings will be 50-62 years old by the end of this year, and the district is trying to be prudent by studying future needs now.

“We know down the road there will be some bigger expenditures, especially at Helke and Smith with HVAC systems to be replaced,” O’Leary said. “And Demmitt is the only school in our district that does not have air conditioning. We’re making sure we don’t throw good money at bad. At what point does it make sense to replace the 62-year-old and 50-year-old buildings?”

O’Leary said the educational visioning team is studying future desires such as project-based learning spaces, all-day kindergarten and career-tech satellite programs to see how they would fit with any school construction or renovation. The district held community forums earlier this year and is waiting on the results of a recent phone survey of residents’ desires.

“The goal has been to be very transparent with the facility visioning,” O’Leary said. “We’re seeking community input, (and) we value that input.”

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