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Bond increase could help Kearney expand schools

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A new early childhood education center, as well as more classroom space for older students, may be coming to Kearney’s kids if voters approve a no-tax levy increase for the school district.

If voters approve the measure at the polls in April, the borrowed amount will be $27 million, and the debt service levy won’t change from $1.1902 per $100 assessed valuation of real and personal property.

Much of the impetus of this measure is to handle burgeoning student populations.

The last time the district came to the voters was in 2001, and they asked for an actual tax increase. Those funds went toward academic programs and further developing the science curriculum, whereas these are slated specifically for facilities.

In 2015, the school board formed a committee to look at long-term facilities. They reviewed district growth patterns and building capacity and took a recommendation to the board in September 2016. After a plan for funds was finalized, the board unanimously supported placing the measure on the April 4 ballot.

Kearney High School is currently over capacity at 104 percent, and district officials don’t expect that to subside, vaulting renovations and additions to the top of the to-do list.

This project is also slated to receive a bulk of the funds, Superintendent Bill Nicely said.

Due to swelling student population, if the voters don’t approve the increase, the district will have to start looking to trailer classrooms to handle the number of students, something it hasn’t yet had to do.

Additions and renovations include a new classroom science wing, new classrooms in the performing arts area, an additional and larger gym, classrooms for the new agriculture program and a multi-use classroom specifically for career instruction.

Another big project is the early childhood education center. The district plans to take over an old grocery store, which it was able to purchase at half price as the owner wished to make a donation to the school.

The center would offer an early-childhood special education program, and an early-childhood program for children from low-income households.

“This way we can adequately prepare students to show up on the first day of kindergarten ready to go at the same pace as paying preschoolers elsewhere,” Nicely said.

The building would also house paid preschool care for employees’ kids and the district’s enrollment center and other offices.

The middle school is also slated to have some improvements if the increase is approved. The building is at an 80 percent capacity and in a couple of years is expected to be over it.

The plan is to renovate a portion of the original 1922 Kearney school building that is part of the middle school to create more classroom space. Growth projections indicate that in seven years, the district will need a new elementary school and will likely need to look at another ballot issue.

“Everything is designed really well with the pace of growth right now, but if we fail this one, it all gets turned upside down and it will be more difficult to maintain that pace,” Nicely said.

The measure has garnered local support. Kearney’s board of aldermen meeting last month passed a resolution in favor of the bond issues, as did the local economic development council.