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Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
Dr. Wendy Robinson, right, FWCS superintendent, and Kathy Friend embrace while waiting for results of the referendum Tuesday evening at Baker Street Station.

FWCS upgrades approved

Building plan OK’d by about 2-1 margin

– Voters in Fort Wayne Community Schools approved a $119 million building plan Tuesday, giving the district the go-ahead to renovate 36 of its aging buildings.

According to unofficial results, 66.4 percent of voters approved the referendum on the district’s building plan. While 17,157 voters cast their ballot in favor of the measure, 8,674 voted against it.

This is the second time in five years that Fort Wayne Community Schools officials proposed a large-scale building plan. In 2007, voters overwhelmingly defeated a $500 million building plan through the dueling petition process.

District officials said the recent effort was successful because they listened to voters, presenting a scaled-down plan that called only for essential upgrades. They also attributed voter support to the district’s academic success in recent years.

“For me, it’s an affirmation of all the hard work that our teachers and principals and all of our employees have put in over five years to turn this into an ‘A’ school district,” said school board Vice President John Peirce, who started a political action committee for the cause. “I think people want to be on the side of a winner, and our school district is a winner.”

Last fall, Fort Wayne Community Schools staff identified up to $242 million worth of needed upgrades to its aging buildings. After a series of public meetings, the board whittled the plan down to $119 million worth of renovations at 36 buildings deemed most in need of repair.

Unlike the $500 million district building plan that was defeated in 2007, the current proposal calls for no additional square footage.

The majority of the plan, or about $100 million, will address major infrastructure needs, including heating and ventilating systems, window systems, safety systems and other problems at 10 schools.

The most expensive upgrade will be at Snider High School, where officials plan to spend $40.2 million to replace heating and cooling systems, replace windows, restore masonry and bring handrails and stairwells up to current code, among other projects.

“We listened to the community from the last time around, and obviously that project was more than the community was able to support,” school district spokeswoman Krista Stockman said. “We scaled it back to our greatest needs. We outlined our plans, and tried to be as transparent as possible all along.”

The building project will run from 2013 through 2016 and will cost the average homeowner a property tax increase of $27 a year, according to district officials. The plan will fall outside the property tax caps, meaning the cost will be shared by all taxpayers in the district and won’t increase the tax-cap loss for other units of government.

Board members hope that after the district completes the first round of projects in 2016, the public will approve all or part of the remaining $123 million in needed renovations.

In January, Peirce started RepairFWCS, a political action committee, to promote the plan. The PAC spent about $40,000, mostly on postcards and fliers supporting the initiative, he said.

The FWCS building plan drew no official opposition, though several business groups, including the Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce, announced their support.

“We truly appreciate the support from the community,” Stockman said. “Obviously this is something we needed the community’s help with; … now we will able to move forward with these much needed repairs.”

Last week, district officials announced the result of a study they commissioned concluding that the project could give a $13 million boost to Allen County’s economy and provide 1,500 jobs.