LACONIA — With one dissenter, the City Council last night gave the School District a green light to pursue a $1,828,000 loan bearing no interest to fund improvements and renovations at what School Superintendent Terri Forsten called "our beloved Laconia High School."
Laconia was the only school district in the state to express interest in the Qualified Zone Academy Bond, or QZAB, which is awarded by the federal government and administered by the New Hampshire Department of Education. To qualify more than 35-percent of the students enrolled in the district must be eligible for free or reduced lunch, a threshold Laconia, at 53 percent, easily exceeds. In addition, funding requires a local match of 10 percent, creation of a so-called "zone academy" and collaboration with community partners, all criteria the School District can satisfy.
Forsten said that the highest priority for the funds is to address health and safety issues by installing a sprinkler system and air handlers as well as removing asbestos and radon gas. If there are sufficient funds remaining the electrical systems in most classrooms would be upgraded, the bleachers in the gymnasium brought up to code, emergency lighting replaced with LED units and the main entrance secured.
Forsten said that for 23 years the annual debt service of $78,261, would be drawn from the School District's operating budget and therefore, would have no impact on the municipal tax cap.
Councilor Brenda Baer (Ward 4) reminded Forsten that the School District has been aware of the life-safety issues for some years, but chose not to include them in the renovation of the high school, expansion of the Huot Regional Technical Education Center and construction of new playing fields completed this year at a cost of $16.8 million. "Some of that $3-million spent on the football field could have been spent on these repairs," she said.
Baer also cautioned that the city will find itself faced bearing the costs of higher retirement contributions, a new county jail and improvements by the Winnipesaukee River Basin Program and suggested that the School District has had its fair share of investment in recent years.
But, Baer was the lone councilor to question the borrowing.
Councilor Henry Lipman (Ward 3) said that the loan offers the most efficient way of protecting the investment the city has made in the high school. Since the debt would be repaid from the School District's operating budget, the borrowing "would not diminish any other (city) project."
Lipman was echoed by Councilor Bob Hamel (Ward 5), who reminded his colleagues that the Fire Department expressed concern that parts of the building remain without sprinklers. "We've got to sprinkle the rest of the building," he insisted.
Forsten said the application for the QZAB was submitted on October 1 and the City Council must host a public hearing and officially approve the borrowing before the year is out. If the loan is approved, she expects the work would be bid in March, begun in June and completed by September 2014.