School board opts to borrow

While the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District owes $100 million, school board directors voted Monday night to increase the debt by an additional $11 million. The board voted 9-0 to borrow the money to help fund elements of the proposed Long-Range Facilities Plan, which includes plans for a controversial double turf field.

According to Ed Murray, of Boenning & Scattergood, the district’s underwriting firm, the new debt comes in the form of a bond purchase of $9 million that, paid back through 2033, amounts to $11.3 million in principal and interest.

Murray also explained that the current $100 million in debt is based on both principal and interest on previous notes. He said the principal on the older debt is $74 million, with $57 million remaining from the high school renovation.

The issue of the turf fields has been a topic of disagreement for several months. Some residents have argued that the cost is prohibitive — especially when it requires more debt — and that the turf fields are not a true necessity and that there are health and safety risks involved.

Others have argued just the opposite, that turf fields are safer than grass. Additionally, they’ve said that having the extra fields allows more teams and groups to practice at the same time so students can get home at a more reasonable hour and have a family dinner.

Prior to the vote, directors gave their reasons for accruing more debt.

Tom Day said that while some say the turf fields cost more, the financial advisory team satisfied him that the turf fields are the best way to go.

“I’m convinced that the investment is modest and is outweighed by the benefits to the community at large,” Day said. “But at the end of the day, this is a decision about what is best for the students and for our community.”

Day added that he thinks the quality of an education is not bound by academic scores, “but rather by the composite of experience afforded to our students.” That experience includes arts, music and sports, he said.

Region C representative John Murphy said he was originally inclined to oppose the fields because of cost and that he didn’t want to raise taxes or incur additional debt. Yet, he said he’s seen excitement when games are scheduled for the current turf field and disappointment when a game is scheduled for a grass field.

“I think our outdoor athletic facilities are average at best. I don’t believe we’ve invested in any of the fields since the bus barn fields opened about 10 years ago. We’ve heard from the coaches, the players and band members about how much a challenge it is to practice, prepare and compete under our current configuration with numerous game cancelations due to field conditions,” Murphy said.

He also said that while the district has put money into improving the academic environment, there’s been nothing done to improve conditions for student-athletes.

“When I weight the pros and cons of this decision, “ he said, “I definitely feel this is something we can do to support our students at a reasonable cost. Based on Mr. Cochran’s projections [Business Manager Bob Cochran], these fields would cost the average taxpayer about $10 a year. It will be less when the actual cost of borrowing comes out because his projections were slightly higher than where they stand.”

Murphy added the fields could be rented out over the summer to help generate some money for the district and that the capital expenditure is a “reasonable use of taxpayer resources to improve the outdoor facilities for our students.”

Carolyn Daniels, also of Region C, said she didn’t initially see a demonstrated need for the fields but, with more and more feedback, her opinion evolved and she accepted the opinion of fellow Director Elise Anderson who said it was something the district should do.

Board Vice President Steve Simonson said he, too, did not want to raise taxes or incur more debt but said the ability to increase practice time and get students home at an earlier hour and other factors were “compelling.”

“I think the artificial turf surfaces will potentially be a community resource.”

Simonson added that his research indicates there is no safety reason for not going to artificial turf.

Director Bob Sage acknowledged the existing level of debt but said, “We do not have a debt problem in the district. True, we have over $100 million in debt outstanding, but we pay down about $8 million per year. As we issue $11 million of new debt…we’ll pay that off in less than two years, so it’s not like we’re taking on a big increase in the fact we’ve been consistently paying down the debt.”

The bond measure also includes some refinancing that would bring down some of the interest payments on the outstanding debt, he said. Additionally, the increase fits into the district’s budget and will keep the district within Act 1 limits so “we’re not creating a burden we can’t bear. And most of the financing is not for turf fields, but for other capital items that keep our facilities current.”

The $9 million funds would pay for, among other things, the turf fields, two new grass fields and some safety netting. Those three elements are estimated to cost $2.5 million. Another $5 million would be needed to the first three years of the LRFP.

 

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About Rich Schwartzman

Rich Schwartzman has been reporting on events in the greater Chadds Ford area since September 2001 when he became the founding editor of The Chadds Ford Post. In April 2009 he became managing editor of ChaddsFordLive. He is also an award-winning photographer.

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