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About 100 community members and Lincoln Public Schools staff met for the first time Tuesday in what will be a seven-month process to compile recommendations that likely will be the basis for a 2020 bond issue.

The Superintendent’s Facility Advisory Task Force will review the district’s building needs, starting with a proposed update to the 10-year building plan released by LPS administrators in December.

The top priorities in that proposed update carry a $334.2 million price tag and include three or four new elementary schools, a new middle school, at least one new high school, a new athletic complex and the addition of geothermal heating and cooling systems to two schools.

And those top priorities don’t include two more “tiers” of less-pressing needs, which total an additional $227.2 million in building projects and $77.7 million in ongoing upkeep and maintenance.

The bottom line: The district has more needs than it has money, so the committee’s job is to figure out which ones are the most pressing.

“These will be difficult decisions ensuring solid facilities for our students into the future but also understanding there are considerably more needs than our limited resources will ever allow,” Superintendent Steve Joel said before the meeting.

A still-unanswered question is just how much money the district will have, which officials have said will be answered during the committee process.

In the last two bond issues, the district timed a vote so new bond debt payments would replace debt recently paid off on old bond issues to avoid raising the tax rate. Other factors that play into that figure are property valuations and interest rates.

In 2020-21, the 2000 bond issues for the two newest high schools — North Star and Southwest — will be paid off, as will a portion of the 2014 bond issue, freeing up $12.6 million annually in bond payments.

Convening an advisory committee to come up with recommendations isn’t a new process. The last two bond issues — for $250 million in 2006 and $153 million in 2014 — began with recommendations from similar groups.

The advisory committee will give its recommendations to Joel by Sept. 1, and he'll pass them on to the school board, which will use them to make decisions about what should be included in a bond issue.

One of the biggest questions for the task force will be what to do about a high school, a complicated question, because there’s substantial growth in most quadrants of the city and the $103.4 million cost of one comprehensive high school makes building more than one cost-prohibitive.

Another community task force on high schools that met last year concluded the district should build comprehensive high schools for 2,000, not smaller ones. 

But district officials have suggested an alternative included in the task force recommendations: Two smaller high schools that would have the same core facilities as comprehensive high schools, including full-size swimming pools, and would be Class A schools for athletic purposes. That would mean they could be expanded to hold more students at a later date.

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Lancaster County Commissioner Jennifer Brinkman, Maribel Cruz, a senior leadership consultant for Talent Plus; and Nick Cusick, president of Bison Inc., are the co-chairs of the group.

At a news conference before the first meeting, the three talked about wanting to build consensus in the group for any recommendations it makes. Cusick also stressed that the group has representation from all parts of the city.

Many of the group members also were part of the high school task force.

Just how the group will be divided remains to be seen, but of the tentative subcommittees suggested Tuesday, three of them have to do with the high school question.

And questions about the high schools came up during the first meeting: Will group members be deciding on a location for the high schools? Would two smaller high schools be Class A? How do the focus programs impact high school enrollment?

If district enrollment growth remains smaller in coming years — this year’s enrollment growth was substantially smaller than it has been in recent years — district officials would rethink their building priorities, Operations Director Scott Wieskamp said in answer to a question.

The next advisory group meeting will be Jan. 29.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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