January 14, 2002 11:00 pm

Some of La Grandes schools are in dismal shape. A recent facilities study showed that many of the schools are in need of substantial renovation, including mechanical, plumbing, electrical and energy upgrades.

Bringing the district up to par at all school buildings would be costly about $14 million for electrical, mechanical, plumbing and roofing work, and another $10 million for ceiling, door and window replacements, according to estimates. Building a new school to replace three of the districts most inefficient elementary schools Riveria, Willow and Island City would cost $6.5 million.

It seems surprising, then, that 70 percent of district patrons contacted in a survey would favor upgrading all the existing buildings at the $14 million level. Building a new school was opposed by 62 percent of respondents.

The preferred alternative, according to the results of the survey, would be to close Riveria to save about $400,000 a year and to upgrade the remaining schools as money becomes available.

The question school board members and citizens should be asking is what makes the most sense for the future of the district. Old buildings can be money pits. The district estimates it would cost $1.9 million to upgrade Willow and $1.4 million to upgrade Island City. Riveria comes in at $2.2 million.

What was not surprising about the survey was that the patrons preferred alternative was the least expensive closing Riveria and renovating schools as money becomes available. And thats OK if residents are willing to live with substandard school buildings that have high operational costs.

But school directors and patrons must be asking themselves what is in the best interests of students and taxpayers in the long-run. Does it make sense to continue to ignore the issues that exist with the school districts classroom buildings, and fix them as money becomes available? Does it make sense to renovate old buildings when the district could build one new, energy efficient school and save operational costs by consolidating three schools into one?

School board members need to recommend the best long-term solution, which may not be the one that is most sellable at the polls. Seeking a bond for a new centrally located school makes more sense than trying to patch up two of three older buildings while trying to justify greater operational costs in light of declining enrollment. The numbers dont add up for operating three schools when one will do.

It would be a tough sell. People are inclined to support their neighborhood schools. But the long-term cost savings must be taken into account.

The district needs to move ahead with the best option, not the most politically expedient one.