By MAX FILBY
VAN BUREN — A decision will likely come Thursday on whether a version of Van Buren’s $29.3 million school construction levy will reappear on the ballot this year.
With an Aug. 6 deadline for submitting ballot issues to the board of elections, Superintendent Tim Myers said the school board has to act fast.
“I would expect it,” Myers said. “Based on the timeline, they’re going to have to make a decision soon.”
Myers and the Van Buren school board heard from about 30 residents Tuesday evening during a public meeting at the Allen Township building.
The district also released the findings of a survey it conducted in June. Only 146 people participated in the survey, compared with 1,384 people who voted on the school levy in May and the 4,554 registered voters in the Van Buren School District.
The survey showed people were split on whether they would vote for or against another levy, and why they would or wouldn’t.
About 47 percent of those surveyed said they thought building new facilities was a “high priority” and about 36 percent said the public couldn’t afford the 37-year, 6.9-mill bond issue the district placed on the May ballot.
District residents voted down the $29.3 million tax proposal in May with 853 votes, or 62 percent, against it, according to the Hancock County Board of Elections. The bond issue had 527 voters in favor.
The levy would have paid for a new gym and 34 new classrooms.
The June survey, an effort to find out what voters might like to see on the ballot, showed about 65 percent had enough information to make a decision.
One audience member Tuesday, who declined to give his name, said residents “didn’t have the full picture before.”
Myers is hoping to gain support from residents who may not have known all the details the first time around.
“We need to tell the story better,” Myers said. “People aren’t going to vote yes if they don’t know enough.
Myers, along with board President Ken Rowles, tried to provide those details Tuesday, including an idea to move the bus garage off the school grounds, and the need to update bleachers to be safer and to comply with standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
A new gym, which was part of the May proposal, is needed because bleacher updates would have required more space for railings and aisles, and therefore would have reduced the gym’s seating by 25 percent, Myers said.
“In a good season we pack that gym,” Rowles said. “We can’t have it at 75 percent of what it is now.”
Audience members and board members also discussed the district’s plan to move the bus garage to allow for more parking and space for facilities. Myers said he is already looking around Van Buren for a potential site for a new garage.
District officials also discussed renovations as a possibility that would cost less than building new. Renovations would cost a little more than $19 million, about $10 million less than building a new gym and 34 new classrooms, Myers said.
Despite the significant savings, Myers and other district officials have said they question how much more money they should put into a building that’s already 96 years old and is suffering from leaky roofs and deteriorating floors.
Some in attendance Tuesday also pressed the school district to think ahead and to consider moving the district’s campus to another area where it wouldn’t be landlocked.
Audience members cited open enrollment into Van Buren as a need for a newer, larger campus. The district brought in 171 students, while losing 54, compared with the 294 students Hopewell-Loudon brings in while only losing 36.
Myers didn’t dismiss the possibility of a new campus, similar to what Hopewell-Loudon and Liberty-Benton built in recent years, but he said it would be far more costly than maintaining the district’s current buildings.
Rowles said the district’s recent purchase of adjacent properties, and the potential of moving the bus garage and athletic venues, would offer a little more room for the campus to expand.
“We don’t think we’re trapped or landlocked,” Rowles said. “We think we’ve got some options and we need to look at them.”