02/19/06 — Schools superintendent answers questions concerning facilities funding debate

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Schools superintendent answers questions concerning facilities funding debate

By News-Argus Staff
Published in News on February 19, 2006 2:06 AM

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a four-part series examining the debate over funding for Wayne County school facilities improvement. Asked to respond to questions, in addition to Taylor, were school board Chairman John Grantham, County Manager Lee Smith and Wayne County Commission Chairman Atlas Price.

1. How will a facilities plan be funded?

I think it's probably going to be a combination of ways. A lot of ideas have been thrown out -- bond referendum, certificate of participation could or could not happen, privatization -- and I think, of course, the county commissioners can come up with their own way (to) borrow the money. Certainly it's all contingent on what the county commissioners would do because they're the funding source. They'd have to be in favor of whatever funding is available. The Board of Education can certainly promote or recommend, but they'll have to approve.

The problem is we have never settled on a funding source. Options have been looked at and put on the table, but we have not decided on a funding source or a combination of sources.

2. Why hasn't there been any movement with regard to funding a bond referendum before now?

That's a hard question to answer in that the Board of Education sent over four plans, so certainly there's been effort and movement on the board's part. But there has been no response to those proposal plans. In my six years as superintendent, there have been four plans; there's been no response with any way of funding the facilities plans that have been presented.

I think from my perspective, that's a question that the county commissioners have to answer. All the BOE can do is submit the plan. It's the commissioners' job to fund our needs.

3. The county commissioners claim you're not giving all the information. How do you respond to that? Are you being forthright? Do you take the time to get the information?

I have given to the county commissioners every bit of information that they have ever requested since I have been the superintendent here. I have nothing to hide. What we do is an open book; our budget is an open book. We sent in an audit report every year.

I don't know really how anyone can say information has not been provided. I'd say I don't know of any time, not a single bit of information that has not been provided or sent to them.

4. What about the fund balance?

Our fund balance is very low. It's the lowest it's ever been, certainly since I have been superintendent.

I feel very uncomfortable being under $2 million. That's not even a month's operating expenses. Our auditors have recommended more. That's just good fiscal policy. Years ago, we had more. It was at that point the county commissioners asked that we spend it down and we have.

But a lot of it has been spent down because of state budget cuts and in my view, lack of local funding.

When your expenses exceed your revenue, it puts us in the predicament we're in now.

5. If you could ask the county commissioners three things about its budgeting process and the facilities debate, what information would you want that you have not received?

I would like to know exactly how much money, based on their budget now, what they an afford to pay right now ... and giving us an amount to work with. Our board all along has said "if you would give us a budget to work with, we'll come up with a budget."

Whatever the amount is, our board would go back and then they'd prioritize 1, 2, 3, 4 -- whether it was $40 million or $60 million, depending on how much they said we could have. Give us an amount of money that we know that we can work with so we can prioritize at least part of the facilities plan.

I understand there's no way they can come up with the money for every single thing, but it seems that after all these years of working with this, they could give us at least a dollar amount that we could work with.

Second, are they satisfied with their local effort in Wayne County with regard to funding the public school system as compared with other districts in North Carolina? With regard to current expenses and meeting capital needs?

Third, I just want us to come together, put together a workable plan, put politics aside and do what's right for children. Let's get to the real issue here. We have facilities needs in our county that, quite frankly, you don't need a consultant to come in to identify. Any casual observer can ride by our schools and see the needs.

I think it's time to get the ball rolling. We have been told by architects that construction costs are 30-40 percent higher than they were several years ago.

In my opinion, in 1996 when we got the $30 million, what should have happened is that that $30 million should have been matched by county commissioners, and if it had been matched, we would not be in the situation we're in today.

And the cost now is going to be 30-50 percent higher to do the same job.

We have to be careful when we're doing our facilities plan that we're planning not only for today but for the future.

You need to allow for growth. We certainly know where the growth is in this county. That's how we have to address the ultimate plan that we put together.

The other thing that I would like to say, I want our relationship to be a trusting relationship.

I operate above board on everything. I don't have any reason to hide any information or not provide information as requested. That serves no purpose.

I understand they're our funding agent, and we have to work with them. I understand that clearly.

Certainly we can support any requests that we have sent over with data to validate their request for funding.

I want us to work together because we're all about the same thing -- developing children, educating children, and I think our children deserve facilities they can be proud of

(I don't think that we should have in our county a system of the haves and have nots in regards to the facilities. Those facilities should be pretty equal.)

6. Do you trust the county to handle this issue properly?

I guess I tend to look at a glass as half full as opposed to half empty. I try to be honest in what I do and say. I assume that people I work with are the same way. I don't question their integrity or their intent.

It's OK to philosophically disagree, but in the end, when everyone states their opinions, has their say, you have got to get together and put together a workable plan, maybe not one that everybody agrees with, but one that everybody can live with.

I think as adults and elected officials, leaders in the county, we have to get to the real issues ... and (do) everything we can to provide a quality education for our children and have programs and staff and facilities that enhance that opportunity.

7. Does the school system really want a relationship with the commissioners? How is what you're saying at meetings, etc., fostering a relationship with them?

I have worked with this board going on six years and I can tell you in my view they certainly have the best interest of children in their hearts, in their minds.

The Board of Education does want to have a good working relationship with the Board of Commissioners. We think that's necessary, that's important, because that lends itself to getting things done. There's no question, and I would assume that the Board of Commissioners would want the same, and I would be surprised if they indicated anything other than that.

It's the desired goal. Maybe if you go back and look at reasons why it's not, it may be little things that are unimportant that have caused progress not to move forward.

Regardless of perceived conflict between the boards, that should not get in the way of what we need to do in many ways regarding our students and our school system.

I meet with superintendents across the state during the year, and I don't see much difference (in what they're going through and we're experiencing). Maybe that's the way it's supposed to be. I think we all reach for the panacea where everything is good, there's never mistrust or questions, it's always a smooth operation with no hurdles in the road, but unfortunately that's not how life is.

At the same time, we have nothing to hide. My sense is that Evergreen will just confirm what we already know.

But the point is, my question would be if Evergreen (the consulting firm) comes back and indicates that funding has not been adequate, will the county commissioners step up to the plate and provide what's needed?

We have a lot of requirements. Public schools are scrutinized like they have never been, with sanctions and mandates like No Child Left Behind. I think the funding sources have to understand that it takes money to accomplish the goals that have been put in place.

We're just trying to meet the mandates. That's going to take every dime that we can come up with from all our sources.

We have cut 58 jobs several years ago, and we have never been able to replace them.

We'll have to do more with less.

8. Would you be open to a joint meeting with the commissioners and would you be interested in bringing the issues into a public forum?

I think at this point we're open to any suggestions that will get the ball rolling and generate at least a plan that we can start to implement.

It means that we have got to have a dollar amount of money. The longer we wait, the more the children are without.

We have not denied a meeting any time they have mentioned it. We have done presentations, tried to explain our budget.

I think it's vitally important that the county commissioners understand their operations and we understand their point of view, (otherwise) you make decisions based on misinformation.

I think certainly students and education and what we're about should be a priority in their list of priorities.

Since '96, the commissioners did give us $2.1 million for Brogden Middle, $1.5 million for CBA gym and $1.5 million for RHS gym. That's $5 million we have received, and we appreciate the $5 million, but it falls far short of our needs.

It all boils down to money. It does take money to do the things that we have to do.

We certainly want to be frugal with our dollars.

(As for the system-wide tour of the facilities conducted last year,) I was very disappointed after having gone through that process, we're still sitting on home plate. There hasn't been any movement then or since.

I guess I'm optimistic enough to believe that at some point in time, it's going to happen and that's going to be a wonderful day when we open up the doors to that new school or go and do a dedication service for renovations or whatever in one of these schools that's deserving.

You have to make the best of situations you're in. Where we are now is that Evergreen is here, and we feel confident that nothing will be done until Evergreen finishes its study. It could be six months.

My hope is that once this is done, we're confident and hopeful that we can come together, get a plan and implement it.

9. What would the $120,000 (being used for the consultant) be used for had it been given to the school system instead?

For the first time ever, commissioners appropriated a 5 percent increase and then kept it. (We challenged that, initiating the appeal proceedings. In the end, we compromised on the 5 percent -- $827,000 -- and received $350,000 of that).

After all that was said and done, we had the unanticipated teacher supplement -- and estimates that it could be a half million dollars just for increased fuel costs. So you're talking about a half million dollars we did not anticipate having to spend that was needed after the budget was said and done.

When commissioners discussed their budget question, they said the money was appropriated for schools, and we could go and request that money. That would have kept the additional deductions out of our fund balance. It's interesting the reason they use for keeping that money was to help their fund balance, to grow their fund balance, to qualify for the appropriate bond rates in the event we go for a bond referendum.

Interestingly enough, we need that money to grow our fund balance, to be in a fiscally sound position. If we had an emergency, I don't want to not immediately have money available for funding.

10. What are the most embarrassing things in the schools, the things that bother you the most or you consider the worst problems?

The northern end is a pronounced issue, where there are some immediate needs --overcrowding, need some new schools, renovations at Norwayne.

Of course we need some at Eastern Wayne Middle. We need a multipurpose room at Brogden Primary. Those are things that have really been at the top of the priority list for some time.

Then you look at Spring Creek. There are a lot of mobile units. The board has to set the priorities, but I think that we're all aware that's where the immediate needs are.