The Carmel Clay Schools board of trustees voted 4-1 to approve a recommendation to build a new Carmel Elementary School building next to the current one and construct a new building on Clay Center Road to replace Orchard Park Elementary, which is five miles away.
The vote came after several parents spoke against closing Orchard Park Elementary at the June 25 school board meeting. The district has been discussing the future of its elementary campuses since April, as growth is projected on the west side of town but overall enrollment is projected to decline.
Board secretary Pam Knowles was the only school board member to vote against the recommendation. She said it didn’t make sense to make such a big decision before the district conducts its next demographic study, which is set to take place this fall.
“Right now it seems we are doing this backwards because we are not doing the demographic study prior to making the decision. We’re basing this on a 2010 (census),” she said. “I can’t agree to building a new school and closing a beloved one. In the end this recommendation may be spot on, but we don’t know that yet.”
CCS Director of Facilities and Transportation Ron Farrand, who gave an overview of the recommendation at the June 25 meeting, said waiting to vote on the recommendation by a month or two would delay the project by a year, since students wouldn’t be moved during the middle of a school year. He said waiting a year to build could increase the costs by $1.8 million because of inflation.
Co-Interim Supt. Amy Dudley read a statement near the end of the meeting, calling the recommendation and vote a “difficult” one to make.
“The recommendation was based on providing every student in our community, both now and in the future, a 21st century learning environment in the most efficient and fiscally responsible manner,” it stated. “It is now our task to design and build those special learning facilities and work hard over the next three years to make these transitions a positive experience for the students and families we serve.”
The fate of the district’s two oldest campuses had been the topic of discussion at several community meetings this spring. Co-Interim Supt. Roger McMichael, who missed the June 25 meeting while vacationing in Maine, previously said he selected these two schools because they were next due for millions of dollars in renovations. With projected declines in elementary enrollment, he said 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.
The district plans to retain ownership of the Orchard Park building. Farrand said McMichael will work to find appropriate tenants, such as the Carmel Dads’ Club, an affordable childcare center or the Carmel Clay Parks and Recreation Dept.
Before the vote, several people who live near Orchard Park Elementary spoke against voting at this time to close it.
Greg Lentz, president of the nearby Orchard Estates Homeowner’s Association, asked the board to gather more information and allow Michael Beresford – who will take over as CCS superintendent July 1 – opportunity to be involved in the discussion.
“We feel that’s basically a rush to judgment,” Lentz said. “We feel the new superintendent should have a lot more input in the decision.”
In May McMichael said the cost of building two new school buildings is estimated at $55 million to $60 million. 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.
Students aren’t expected to move into the new campuses until the 2021-2022 school year. Preliminary site work is expected to begin in August 2019 with building construction starting in February 2020. The new buildings could be ready for occupancy by June 2021.
In 2020 the district plans to begin rebalancing the student population to prepare for the closure of Orchard Park and opening of the new school on Clay Center Road the following year. CCS will aim to send students to the school closest to where they live, Dudley said.
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. CCS plans to work with the Carmel Dads’ Club to find a new site for those games.