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Lancaster capital plan timing seen as ‘perfect’

The Lancaster School District will ask voters to approve an ambitious $57.3 million capital project in May.

The proposal ranges from basic renovations such as installing new boilers and dealing with flooding at an elementary school to big-ticket items including a new artificial turf field and the expansion of the district’s field house.

With historically low borrowing expenses on top of the project being eligible for 80 percent state aid, Superintendent Michael J. Vallely says it makes sense to go for the money now.

“The timing is perfect. The reason all districts are going all out is because bond and interest rates are at historic lows,” Vallely said Tuesday.

Vallely is well aware that his large district is squeezed for physical space for music programs, sporting events and more. “For a lot of decades, there’s been a lot of complaining about a lot of things,” he said. “This plan is about fixing the vast majority of things that have been traditional problems.”

The plans for the athletic facilities come with a caveat: The Lancaster Educational and Alumni Foundation would have to raise $1 million to cover the local share of their $7.7 million cost wrapped into the overall project.

Raising that $1 million has already started but the foundation has a long way to go. So far, it has raised just short of $40,000. Plans are in the works to reach out to alumni, businesses and corporations.

“We are – grass roots right on up to corporate sponsors. Despite the fact we’ve been working on it for a while, the real heavy lifting has yet to begin,” said parent Edward F. Kilgore, vice president of the foundation’s board of directors. “We’re not looking for taxpayers to pay for extras like a turf field and fieldhouse. I don’t think we get to $1 million without getting large donations from people or businesses. Absolutely, I think it’s doable.”

“The turf field and expanded field house, some would say, are pie-in-the-sky ideas, but right now, we’re pretty needy with facilities,” Vallely said. “We have 1950s and ’60s buildings.”

The district’s plan includes replacing school boilers and addressing flooding at Hillview Elementary School, to spiffing up libraries, and relocating the district’s transportation facility.

Bus operations would be moved to a 30-acre site on Walden Avenue near Pavement Road that the district has owned since the 1950s.

The high school is targeted for the bulk of the work and upgrades, and they are long overdue, district leaders say. But just as important are the “wow” components, such as a $2 million expansion of the 1998 field house by 10,000 square feet, marking the first significant work done on that facility since it was built. District officials want to replace the floor and put in a larger, regulation-size track, which would mean that it could host track sectionals and wrestling tournaments.

There also are plans for a new $4 million artificial turf field with lights and bleachers to accommodate the growing football, soccer, field hockey and marching band practices in an area behind the field house that is now used for boys soccer.

The high school library would virtually become digital, with many books removed, and “a genius” bar similar to ones at Apple stores as part of an academy for students and staff to learn from one another.

With plans for the district’s 115 buses and transportation facilities to be housed on Walden, a portion of the old bus garage would be renovated for concessions and restrooms. The district would gain 350 parking spaces for parents and students by removing the fencing around the bus area.

Other highlights include:

• More storage under new bleachers at the expanded field house. If that is done, the six to eight green metal storage bins that the district has rented for decades between the field house and the tennis courts would be a thing of the past. They store everything from marching band equipment and high school musical costumes to sports equipment. “They’re ugly, and huge, and expensive to rent,” Vallely said.

• Replacing the high school’s 27-year-old outdoor track that is full of divots. Also, renovating the current gymnasium into a “black box” theater for music performances, rehearsals and an art gallery. The old gym’s locker rooms would be made into a multi-use activities area for wrestling, gymnastics and baseball. A new gym would be built on the site of old north gym.

Music renovations are considered critical. “Our music program has just exploded,” Vallely said. “We have these huge programs and no place to put these kids.”

The district insists that there would not be an additional tax impact. As district debt gets paid down, the project’s financing would not increase the debt service beyond its current level, officials said, and it would remain flat over the next 15 years.