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Work at Ben Franklin Elementary is underway, more to come

The raw gym floor is complete at Ben Franklin Elementary, as work continues over the summer to make upgrades.

The raw gym floor is complete at Ben Franklin Elementary, as work continues over the summer to make upgrades.

June 30, 2014

Menomonee Falls — It has only been three weeks since Ben Franklin Elementary closed its doors to students for the summer, and already the school is unrecognizable.

Asbestos removal is underway, the new gym floor is almost complete and rewiring for all new light fixtures is occurring this week, all part of a major overhaul the school is receiving this summer.

Earlier this year, the school board authorized moving forward with all of the necessary projects at Ben Franklin this year instead of attempting to split the estimated $1.2 million in work over two summers.

"Doing everything in one summer just makes sense," said Jeff Gross, director of business services for the district. "It's so much more efficient than if we had to bring the crews in over two summers and shut down summer school in the process."

Instead the work is all occurring this summer, resulting in summer school classes that would have otherwise been held at Ben Franklin being relocated to Shady Lane and Riverside elementary schools. To accommodate the timeliness of construction, the board opted to dip into its reserve fund balance to fund a portion of the project.

The district typically budgets $650,000 in a year for improvements like what's occurring at Ben Franklin, Gross said, and this year decided to take an additional $500,000 from fund balance to cover the necessary improvements.

Taking from district reserves was a calculated move that was met with some resistance from board members, but ultimately Gross said it is in the best interest of the district.

"Not only is this one-time use an appropriate use of fund balance," he said, "but we are definitely in a good place as far as our bond rating is concerned."

And it may not be the first time in the near future the district could opt to use general fund dollars to fund improvements. The school board at a June 24 work session discussed at length a variety of projects that need to occur to bring various district buildings up to speed.

The possibility of knocking down Thomas Jefferson Middle School and Hiawatha School, which formerly housed the district administrative offices, was mentioned. The two vacant buildings neighbor each other and could become the site of an additional elementary school.

General improvements to the elementary schools, as well as to areas of the middle and high school, are also on the radar. Specifically, the auditoriums of the high school and middle school and basement work at the high school are among the projects being discussed.

"We've got an awful lot on our plate to consider," said board member Ron Bertieri. "Our number one concern is what does it mean academically for our students, followed by what it means for our facilities physically to have them updated and what kind of costs are involved with doing that."

A facilities-related referendum could be considered but likely would not appear on a ballot until fall of 2015.

"We are nowhere near finalizing anything yet," said Bertieri, who added the board will continue discussing possibilities at future work sessions through the summer and fall.

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