WATSEKA — Voters overwhelmingly gave approval on a referendum to back $17,125,000 for a new school building and facilities improvements to remedy flooding issues in Watseka School District.
With taxpayer and federal funding, the district plans to construct a K-12 campus where Watseka Community High School is located. The high school, which is the only building out of the district’s four schools not in a floodplain, will see major renovations and be connected to a new, adjacent school building.
In the April 6 election, 962 out of 1,233 voters (78 percent) said yes to the referendum allowing the district to issue bonds to fund the project.
Superintendent Dave Andriano said the project will be funded with 25 percent local funds and 75 percent federal funds. In total, it will cost about $67 million.
“This was not possible until the city of Watseka passed the [natural hazards] mitigation plan, which opened the door for us to be able to apply for these grants,” he said.
The property tax increase translates to $39 per year for a $50,000 home or $99 per year for a $100,000 home over the next 25 years, he said.
Andriano said next year the district will close Nettie Davis Elementary, a kindergarten through first grade building which has flooded multiple times, and relocate students throughout the district.
Kindergarteners will go to Wanda Kendall Elementary, and first through fifth grades will be in Glenn Raymond Middle School. Sixth through eighth grades will be on the second floor of Watseka Community High School, while ninth through 12th grades will be on the first floor.
He explained that with declining enrollment of an average 50 students per year, the district has room to shuffle students around.
Glenn Raymond will eventually be closed as well, he said. The district plans to build onto the east side of the high school, so that all K-12 students will be on one campus.
Watseka proposed consolidating with other school districts in recent years, but voters have turned it down.
“We have a lot of deferred maintenance in our buildings that would cost us roughly around $17 million to complete,” Andriano said. “If it didn’t pass, we’d still have to make these repairs. We either invest in the buildings that we have or pass this referendum and get a completely new campus where everyone will be in air conditioning and a 21st-century learning environment.”
He expects the project, currently in the concept phase, should be completed by around 2025 or 2026.
“Now that it’s passed, the architects will sit down with our staff and start working on what are our needs, what are our wants,” he said. “Square-footage wise, we know what that looks like, but now we can design it.”
Right now, each grade level averages around 60 students. The district plans to build a new school large enough to house 75 per grade level. In the event consolidation happens in the future, Watseka would be able to absorb students.
“We don’t want to build too big,” he noted. “We don’t want to waste taxpayer dollars.”
This is Andriano’s first year as superintendent. He was previously assistant superintendent in Bradley Elementary School District.
“The board has been working on this for well over two years and has been very transparent about ways to get our students out of the floodplain,” he said. “We came up with a solution, one that we felt was best not only for our school district, but for our community, and we went to work.”
Watseka School Board member Rusty Maulding said Nettie Davis took on 6 inches of water throughout its entire first floor during a major flood in Watseka in 2018, while Glenn Raymond took on significant seepage in its lower levels.
He said new building plans started a few years ago when the district began talking about a 10-year capital improvement plan.
“Things crystallized when we realized we couldn’t fund a 10-year plan, so we had to move it to 20 years,” Maulding said. “Then we started looking at — we had these old buildings — what opportunities are out there? We started finding funding sources, and the whole thing started snowballing in fall of 2019.”
Because the district has to work around the funding cycles of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, it will probably be four to five years before everyone in the district is in their new spaces, Maulding said.
“It’s probably about a year longer than it would normally be, but it is well worth the wait,” he added. “This puts us out of that [flooding] threat.”
Maulding also said he wanted to thank voters for making these improvements possible. He believes the volunteer community organization Unity for Our Community, which helped spread the word and explain the referendum with the public, helped push the district over the edge for it to pass.
“Without [voter] support, this wouldn’t be happening,” Maulding said. “And I think it’s a great thing for our community and a great thing for our kids for decades to come.”