Parents leave Carmel school board meeting with mixed emotions after recommendation to rebuild one school, relocate another  

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Two groups of elementary school parents walked into the May 21 Carmel Clay Schools board of trustees meeting eager to hear recommendations on the fate of their aging campuses.

By the end of the meeting, one group was able to breathe a huge sigh of relief. The other left in anger and frustration.

CCS Co-Interim Supt. Roger McMichael recommended that the district construct a new Carmel Elementary School adjacent to its current site and build a new school on Clay Center Road on the west side of the city to replace the current Orchard Park Elementary building. He described it as a “new Orchard Park,” but many of the school’s parents in attendance didn’t see it that way.

“He’s not building a new Orchard Park, he’s closing it,” said Orchard Park parent Christopher Moore, noting that the new facility will be approximately five miles from the current one.

Carmel Elementary parent Darcy Wiley said she didn’t know what to expect at the meeting but she’s thankful McMichael listened to advocates for her school.

“We’re pleased with the idea of rebuilding on site so we can keep our school in the heart of Carmel,” she said.

The fate of the district’s oldest campuses had been the topic of discussion at several community meetings in the last month. McMichael previously said he selected these two schools because they were next due for millions of dollars in renovations, and with projected declines in elementary enrollment it might make sense to close one or both schools.

At the May 21 meeting, McMichael said as a result of community feedback he decided to separate the issues of aging buildings and declining enrollments. He said he decided not to focus so much on projected enrollment declines in making this recommendation, as the issue can be re-evaluated in the future if the demographer’s projections of CCS having 900 less students by 2026 turns out to be accurate.

“We will have other buildings that will be the Orchard Park and Carmel elementaries of those days,” he said. “I feel confident good decisions will be made in that regard, but whatever they are I don’t believe – with what we’re talking about here (today) – we will look back and say, ‘We shouldn’t have done this.’”

McMichael said that most of the parents who have contacted CCS about saving Orchard Park live in the Home Place neighborhood, which surrounds the school. He said only 10 percent of the students live within a mile of campus and that almost half of the student population lives north of 111th Street.

“Some of the longest bus rides for elementary students is to Orchard Park,” he said, adding that he anticipates 1,300 students will have a shorter bus trip if his recommendations – and subsequent redistricting – are approved.

McMichael also recommended that CCS attempt to find a way for the current Orchard Park building to remain an educational hub in the community, whether it be for preschoolers or adult classes.

“It’s really important that the school district participate in doing everything we can to continue to provide benefits for the public at that site,” he said. “I certainly wouldn’t recommend disposing of the site or anything like that.”

The cost of building two new school buildings is estimated at $55 million to $60 million, McMichael said. He doesn’t expect the projects to increase the tax rate as the district was already planning for $37 million in bonds to upgrade these campuses. The district also plans to retire some other debt by that point.

“We will have no trouble keeping the tax rate level or declining,” McMichael said. “I do not anticipate it will go up. It certainly will not go up as a result of this project.”

If the school board approves the recommendations, students aren’t expected to be moved until the 2021-22 school year at the earliest. McMichael said preliminary site work could begin in August 2019 with building construction starting in February 2020. The new buildings could be ready for occupancy by June 2021.

The new Carmel elementary building is proposed to be constructed to the south of the current one on what is currently Wodock Fields, which hosts youth baseball and football events. The fields could be moved to the site of the relocated Orchard Park building, which would be on 35 acres.

The school board did not vote on the issue. That will likely happen at its June 25 meeting. Until then, Orchard Park advocates plan to continue working to convince school board members to renovate the school – in its current location.

“Going forward, we’re going to continue to encourage people to speak up,” said Julie Kempf, an Orchard Park parent.

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