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MINIER - The Olympia school district will need to borrow money, pass a tax increase referendum or do a combination of both to keep the budget balanced and possibly pay for major renovation or construction at the elementary schools, district officials learned.

"We have a window of opportunity in the next 10 to 15 months to establish a good facilities plan and good working finances," said Superintendent Donald Hahn. After that, the district will have exhausted its financial reserves, Hahn said.

Hahn and the school board met at a recent planning retreat with consultants Bill Payne and Carl Baxmeyer of Fanning/Howey Associates. Payne and Baxmeyer presented studies to the board on population and enrollment trends of Olympia, the status of facilities and financial options.

Hahn will present a timeline on facility needs and revenue when the board meets at 7 p.m. Monday at the unit office near Stanford. Future board meetings will then be scheduled as needed to address the financing and facilities issues.

"Additional fees and reductions will not solve the long-term finance needs," Hahn said. "Although the budget is balanced, the district continues to draw from the working cash fund reserve, and this fund is expected to be depleted by the end of the 2006-2007 school year."

The board started its current fiscal year last summer with a projected $727,000 deficit in a $19.5 million budget. The district had about $5 million in reserves, including $1.3 million in working cash funds, at that time.

The district closed three elementary schools in 2004 to help close a $4 million spending gap in the 2004-05 budget. That followed voters' rejection of property tax increase referendums.

Hahn said he has been telling the board the district will face financial hardships since the referendums. Now the board needs to look into all the different scenarios to determine what is most feasible, he said.

Beyond balancing the budget, the district also needs to look at facility upgrades that need to be done, Hahn said. For example, the elementary schools need air conditioning and Olympia North Elementary School in Danvers needs a lot of work, Hahn said.

"North is an older building and is getting to be costly. There is approximately $1.2 million of life-safety work that would need to be done at North in the next few years," said Hahn.

Payne presented three options for facility construction at the retreat. They were

w Build one, central elementary school near the current middle school on the Olympia campus near Stanford.

w Build one north-east-south school for half the elementary students and remodel Olympia West Elementary School at Minier to accommodate the other half.

w Upgrade Olympia West and Olympia South Elementary School at Atlanta while replacing Olympia North with a new facility.

The consultants recommended the third option as the best and most responsive to the taxpayer, Payne said. He said regional planners expect the west side of Bloomington will be growing, and that will have an impact on the northeastern part of Olympia.

"Option three just provides a lot of flexibility options and keeps the possible growth in mind," Payne said.

On enrollment trends, Payne told the board the population of school-age children will continue to decline for the near term, but then it will rebound around 2011-12 when "empty nesters" start selling homes to younger families. Olympia enrolment is slightly more than 2,000 today, but it was around 2,500 in 1996-97.

Payne said this is a common trend among districts.

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