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‘These needs do not go away’

Financial troubles stalled facilities work at APS

News Photo by Julie Goldberg Alpena Public Schools Superintendent John VanWagoner shows a leak in one of the boilers at Alpena High School on Wednesday. The three boilers at the school are over 50 years old.

ALPENA — School roofs and boilers should be replaced after 15 to 25 years, but that hasn’t happened at Alpena Public Schools.

As the district has struggled financially over the years, equipment in the district’s schools have been forced to last longer. District officials are considering asking voters to approve a bond sale that would raise money for facilities repairs.

If that happens, boilers would be 20 to 56 years old by the time they’re replaced, while roofs would be between 17 and 30 years old, according to information provided by APS officials.

The Alpena school board has not decided if it wants to ask voters for permission to sell $33.9 million in bonds, but has submitted paperwork to the state.

If the bond sale went forward, they would be repaid over decades through property taxes, but officials have said they expect tax rates would stay the same because bond debt from the 1990s is about to be paid off.

The age of the roofs and boilers has been catching up to the district this school year. Roofs are leaking and boilers are leaking and not properly turning on.

Alpena Superintendent John VanWagoner has said that, if the roofs and boilers continue to provide problems for the district, an emergency situation could arise, forcing schools to close for a long period of time.

District maintenance staff are doing everything they can to keep the equipment together, VanWagoner said.

“We’re doing everything we think we can to make them last as long as we can and save every dollar,” VanWagoner said. “But they don’t last that long.”

HOW WE GOT HERE

Money has been an issue.

The district ran out of cash a few years ago, when its fund balance at the end of the 2013-14 school year was almost $1.6 million in the red.

The district has worked since then to rebuild that savings account.

But, in the midst of the financial crisis, “the district barely kept the lights on,” VanWagoner said. “They did everything they could, maintenance-wise, but there was no money for salaries, everybody took a 10% pay cut, there was no money for buses, there was no money for extra supplies.”

As it has climbed out of the deficit, the district hasn’t been able to save money to purchase new boilers or replace roofs. A new roof at Wilson Elementary School would cost about $300,000, while three new boilers at Alpena High School could cost almost $1.3 million.

“People have to understand that the state does not adequately supply the money to do that,” VanWagoner said. “You will be hard-pressed to find any district in the state of Michigan that does these kinds of things out of their budget.”

Earlier this month, voters in Ann Arbor Public Schools gave that district permission to take on $1 billion in bond debt to fund facilities repairs, renovation, and construction.

Meanwhile, Alpena voters in May rejected a $63 million bond proposal that would have included $4.5 million in roof and boiler work.

Alpena Board of Education President Gordon Snow, who’s been on the board for 11 years, said the district has struggled to fund facilities work because it has to pay for numerous things, including buses, basic repairs, and utilities.

“People don’t understand the challenges,” Snow said. “We’re doing the best we can.”

AGE OF ROOFS AND BOILERS

Issues with the roofs and boilers are happening at numerous schools throughout the district.

Boiler problems are happening at the high school, at Alternative Choices for Educational Success Academy, and at Ella White, Wilson, Hinks, and Sanborn elementaries.

“It’s almost all of them,” VanWagoner said.

VanWagoner said Lincoln Elementary School’s boiler does not need to be replaced anytime soon because new technology was around when that was installed in the late 1990s, thanks to a 1996 bond sale approved by voters.

Those bonds raised almost $27 million to build a new Lincoln Elementary and Thunder Bay Junior High School.

Besser Elementary School’s boiler is OK, VanWagoner said, but it’s getting to the point of age becoming an issue.

“We had a pump go out at Besser just as the winter started,” he said.

Roofs are an issue at the high school, Ella White, Wilson, and Lincoln. The roof at Wilson had standing water that remained days after it rained in early October.

VanWagoner said some of the roofs and boilers should have been replaced over 20 to 30 years ago.

“These needs do not go away,” Snow said. “Things wear out and don’t replace themselves.”

If voters approved a new bond proposal, VanWagoner said, roofs and boilers will be replaced over five years.

The new boilers would be energy-efficient, which means they would last longer and save the district money.

Julie Goldberg can be reached at 989-358-5688 or jgoldberg@thealpenanews.com. Follow her on Twitter @jkgoldberg12.