KENDALLVILLE — Ten years ago, East Noble settled for “good” options to house its transportation and growing technology departments.
But in the decade since, buses have gotten bigger. The role of the transportation department to not just pick up kids but maintain its own fleet has gotten bigger. The role of technology in education has gotten bigger, with every student equipped with devices and computers, tablets and other smart devices now the norm in the classroom.
Now, both departments are bursting out of their respective homes.
In hopes of killing two birds with one stone, East Noble on Wednesday pitched the first look at a $5 million upgrade to the district’s bus garage facility on Ohio Street to not only expand and upgrade the footprint of the transportation department, but also to move the ever-growing technology hub out of East Noble High School.
In a more than hour-long presentation to the East Noble School Corp. Board of Trustees from Technology Director Joanna Cook, Transportation Director Josh Buhro and Maintenance Director Bill Knox, the trio laid out a four-point plan for how an expansion could better serve their departments and the district.
The presentation started with a brief history lesson from Chief Finance and Operations Officer Brian Leitch, who started back in 2010 when East Noble made the decision to lease a former car dealership at Ohio Street and S.R. 3 to begin servicing its bus fleet in-house.
Buhro later noted to the school board that the tipping point for that decision followed a time when 33 of the district’s 55 buses failed their Indiana State Police service inspections, proving pretty definitively that the contracted services the district was using then simply wasn’t effective.
Also, in November 2010, the district started discussions about moving to a 1-to-1 technology plan and equipping every student with laptops. That moved quickly, with 4,300 devices deployed across the district by August 2011.
Over time, the district has added more staff and duties to both departments and in 2019, East Noble purchased not only the current bus garage facility but additional open acreage to the north of the property. That purchase cost $450,000.
“That’s served us well for a number of years and last year we made the jump and purchased that building,” Leitch said. “We’ve done some things along the way to prepare us for where we are now.”
In laying out the current issues, the primary issue Buhro and Cook both brought were a lack of space, although each department is facing other limitations.
For transportation, the current garage property has little room to park all of the buses as well as employee vehicles. The current maintenance garage has only one overhead door, making it difficult to service more than one vehicle at a time. The department has no ability to wash buses indoors during cold weather, leading to increased deterioration from salt and grime in the winter months.
Beyond that, the current bus garage building is not set up to serve as an office complex, with a very inefficient and outdated heating and cooling system and a leaking roof.
For technology, Cook noted that her department’s employees are cramped into one and a half former classrooms landlocked in the middle of the high school. None of the offices — outside of hers which is a converted storage closet — have doors, which limits privacy. Meanwhile, equipment is piled up toward the ceiling, repair desks are cramped next to each other and the department’s storage warehouse is located across the school.
From a maintenance standpoint, the school’s cooling system is not efficient for cooling a server room where critical systems are being hosted and the excess air conditioning units that serve the department are nearing the end of their lifespan. Lastly, the district’s eBay sales, which it uses to sell off unneeded equipment that is run by the IT department, may bring buyers to the school for pickup during times when students are on campus, representing a safety risk.
The trio boiled the benefits of an expansion and relocation project to four main points — safety and security, efficiency, logistics and support.
For security, from the transportation side, the district would have better control over access to buses on the lot and also be able to prevent vendors from strolling onto the grounds and walking into maintenance garages to try to sell products or service.
An expanded maintenance garage with two drive-thru bays would also decrease collision risk for buses that currently have to be pulled in and carefully maneuvered into the current garage.
For technology, a new location with dedicated offices will increase privacy and access to equipment. As school IT workers are sometimes tasked with doing sensitive investigative work in cooperation with law enforcement, being able to maintain privacy is critical.
From the efficiency side, a renovation would greatly improve utility use at the current bus garage. The HVAC system there now is essentially little more than a household heating and cooling unit, with one thermostat to control the entire building, Knox explained. Temperature differences between common areas and individual offices can vary eight to 10 degrees because there is no way to control temperature at a more precise level.
The building also has little insulation, it leaks and moisture collects on the interior windows requiring care to prevent mold and degradation. The bus garage is also one of the few places left with outdated fluorescent lighting that uses more electricity than more modern LED fixtures, Knox said.
Bus wash bays will also allow the district to keep its buses clean over the winter, which should keep the buses in better shape along their 12-year lifespans and prevent costly repairs from rusted-out and damaged components, Buhro said.
For technology, not only does the department need a better, dedicated HVAC system for keeping servers at proper temperatures, the department also needs a dedicated generator to keep critical systems from crashing even during extended power outages. Currently the department is supported by the high school generator, which can keep the servers online but is not capable of also powering air conditioning to keep that equipment cool, Cook said.
The move would also allow the technology department to have its own warehouse next door to its offices, allowing for easier retrieval of supplies and equipment.
On the logistics front, the plan would call for turning the land to the north of the garage into a parking lot for the district’s fleet, while adding the new maintenance facility to the north end of the existing building. That will allow for dedicated and separate bus and employee parking and improve flow of vehicles in and out of the facility, Buhro said.
The upgrades would allow for much easier in-and-out of buses for maintenance, allow the district to effectively work on four buses at the same time and create indoor garage space for up to nine buses in the winter.
The technology department would benefit logistically by having more space, having a consolidated location and also having a singular, easy-to-access space for all employees and families who need to address technology issues.
The separate location would also ensure more consistent deliveries over breaks, which can be missed because the high school main office is generally closed when school is not in session, but that’s when the tech department is often the busiest, Cook said.
The new space would also keep eBay purchaser business away from the high school, with buyers able to pick up items at the garage facility instead.
Lastly, in terms of support, the new facility would help streamline maintenance and repair services that both departments run for the district.
The new facility would have a dedicated lobby area that could help both vendors and customers needing assistance and help better control access to the building than is currently available.
Following the detailed presentation, Leitch stepped back in to talk about a proposed timeline and cost if board members choose to move forward.
The district will advertise for construction managers who would help design the project with an architect, with a firm hired by Oct. 21. Design would take place throughout the fall and early winter, with construction bids to be received by February.
Once awarded to a builder, East Noble could break ground on the expansion as soon as April and complete it by July. Renovations to the existing facility would start in spring and be complete by fall.
As for financing, Leitch said if the district wants to act on its next project, now is the right time.
“Now is a perfect time to enter into a project like this and continue our plan as we move forward here at East Noble,” Leitch said. “This project is going to need approximately $5 million of construction costs.”
Plus bonding costs, Leitch estimated the project will run a total of about $5.16 million.
The timing is good because the debt payments for the district’s previous $4.8 million bond is set to expire. That debt, which was taken out in 2018 to fund roof work, chiller and boiler replacements and HVAC control systems at Avilla and South Side elementaries, will be paid off in 2021.
If the district were to take a new construction bond, payments wouldn’t start until 2022 after the old debt rolls off.
“(The 2018 bonds) were tax neutral. This is the same way,” Leitch said. “The tax rates for East Noble, the levy needed to support the debt has decreased as we discussed.”
Leitch presented two possible financing plans for a five-year or seven-year financing plan. A five-year plan would keep taxes about level with where they are now, which a longer-term would potentially lead to a drop of about 4 cents per $100 of assessed value from 2023 and beyond.
“Now is the perfect time to move into this,” Leitch said.
As the board got its chance to respond, board member Kara Hand disagreed.
“I personally think $5 million is a big ask for a bus garage,” Hand said, stating that she might have thought twice last year about buying the facility if she knew a bigger price tag was waiting in the wings. “Five million dollars is a lot of money.”
Board member Dan Beall noted that one past criticism of East Noble was that the district never seemed to have a long-term strategy. But in recent years, the district has been making big moves to set East Noble for long-term success instead of simply tackling short-term problems as they arose.
“I think in the last several years we’ve had a vision not just to maintain but exceed expectations,” Beall said. “I think now financially is an excellent time looking at bonding, tax rate, to make the next step and I would support this project wholeheartedly.”
Board member Denise Holbrook also voiced some skepticism about the need and whether the district had underutilized space elsewhere.
The response from the administration was that, no, East Noble doesn’t have the room it needs for this kind of project. Superintendent Ann Linson then launched into full-throated defense of the need for this facility.
“We can stay right where we are, we can continue to Band-Aid, but it gets in the way of truly being great and truly being able to serve our community, our students and our staff,” Linson said. “It’s not effective. It’s not productive.
“It wasn’t ideal 10 years ago. It’s time to make it so it’s ideal and best for our students,” Linson said.
Board President Barb Babcock, whose professional background is in technology in the local banking industry, reminded her colleagues that technology is only going to continue to advance and not move backward.
Borrowing rates are at historic lows, so, financially, it’s a good time to act, she said.
Board member Brent Durbin also agreed that it’s time to make a long-term fix to address needs that are already there.
“I think instead of kicking the can down the road let’s do what’s best to keep our school corporation moving forward,” he said. “I think we need to get on board with it and support our staff.”
The board approved moving ahead with the project on a 4-2 vote, with Beall, Durbin, Babcock and board member Jen Blackman voting for and Holbrook and Hand voting against.
The board’s seventh seat is currently vacant after the resignation of John Wicker.