TRINITY — The first step toward building a new West Morgan High School took place last week when the Morgan County school board voted unanimously to give Superintendent Bill Hopkins Jr. authorization to borrow up to $25 million for the project.

The board also gave Hopkins permission to hire an architectural firm to design an auxiliary gymnasium and athletic complex for boys and girls at Danville High.

The votes Thursday took the high school from the planning to financing stage and the Danville project from the discussion stage to design.

“We’re going to the bond market as soon as we feel like it’s most favorable,” Hopkins said.

The superintendent said the bond funds will not be used on the Danville project, which is estimated to cost about $2.6 million.

“But the Danville complex is next on our construction list,” Hopkins said.

Based on Thursday’s market, Morgan County Schools Chief Financial Officer Brian Bishop said he expects the district to borrow the money at a 3.4% interest rate and will wrap the new debt around the district’s current $54 million worth of debt.

He said that means the school system will be making mostly interest payments on the $25 million until the current debt is paid off. Bishop said none of the current debt is financed for more than 15 years.

He said Morgan County has an AA- bond rating and $20 million in reserve, which is almost four months of operating expenses. The state requires school systems to have a one-month reserve.

“We’re in good financial shape,” Bishop said.

Two other pending issues could give Morgan County schools a financial boost. One is a lawsuit about the legality of a local law that redirects online sales taxes from the Morgan County Commission to the county’s three public school systems.

Morgan County would receive about $500,000 annually if schools win the lawsuit, according to Bishop.

Another source of revenue could come from a public school and college authority bond issue state lawmakers are talking about for 2020. Bishop said the bonds, if approved, could mean an additional $8.5 million to $10 million for Morgan County schools.

Hopkins said the state bond might be a funding source for the Danville High project, but as for now, all he’s planning to do is get engineering plans.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said there have been some discussions about a state bond, but it will be up to Gov. Kay Ivey as to whether the bond is part of the 2020 legislative agenda.

Morgan school board member Billy Rhodes, who represents the West Morgan area, has been pushing for a new high school for almost a decade. He said enrollment at all West Morgan schools has been rising for two decades and the elementary, middle and high school have no space for growth.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Trinity’s population has increased from 2,095 in 2010 to an estimated 2,439 in 2018.

Hopkins said the West Morgan projects will change how classes are configured. He said the high school will be for students in grades 9-12, while the middle school site will house students in grades 4-8. Hopkins said the plan is to move fourth grade students from West Morgan Elementary on Old Alabama 24 to the middle school. He said students in grades 4-5 would be segregated from students in grades 6-8.

The elementary school was constructed 11 years ago, and the district completed a $930,000 classroom expansion in 2014.

“The elementary school is out of space,” Hopkins said, adding that by moving fourth graders the school systems could scrap plans for a $2 million expansion to add more classrooms.

The new high school will be designed by McKee and Associates and constructed on 50 acres the school district purchased between the existing high school and Old Alabama 24. The new school is expected to be about 90,000 square feet and designed for 600 students with two areas for expansion. A new gym opened for the 2018-19 basketball season as part of a first phase of projects at the site.

— deangelo@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2469. Twitter @DD_Deangelo.

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