05/16/06 — School board, county ready to talk about facilities

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School board, county ready to talk about facilities

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on May 16, 2006 1:53 PM

The Board of Education and county commissioners, at odds over school facilities needs and how to pay for them, emerged from a joint meeting Monday night with a plan to join forces in lobbying state legislators for needed school funding.

The two boards met together to review the results of the Evergreen Solutions school finance and facility report. Commissioners hired Evergreen in January to conduct a study of the school system, which included the development of a facilities master plan for the district.

Since then, Evergreen has reviewed existing reports and data, interviewed school board members, county commissioners, the county manager and senior staff members, the school superintendent, central office administrators, principals, and business leaders.

In a 90-minute presentation, Evergreen officials outlined 48 recommendations they suggest will streamline processes and save as much as $13 million for the school system over the next five years.

The consultants also emphasized that there was much being done well in the district -- specifically mentioning 22 areas they considered "commendations."

Linda Recio, president of Evergreen, called Wayne County Public Schools a "well-run school district."

"We found a very well-organized and dedicated group of employees in some clearly exemplary programs," she said. "We're talking about making a good school system even better through collaboration and cooperation."

Among the commendations, the school system was cited for providing reports to communicate vital financial information to schools and departments; consistently earning positive audits; maintaining a comprehensive inventory accountability system; operating its transportation department at an efficient cost per pupil; and for developing a technology plan focused on student achievement.

As for recommendations, the common theme involved measures for the two boards to work together.

Evergreen suggested the schools establish a cooperative purchasing arrangement with the county as a cost-savings benefit; schedule consistent meetings and dialogue between the two boards; and develop a strategic plan and board policy establishing fund balance guidelines.

Tom Martineau, head of facilities for Evergreen, said he was impressed with the facilities operation in the school system and discussed recommendations in use and management.

His suggestions included hiring a construction manager to work with design professionals, an independent "cost validator" to check estimates leading up to the guaranteed maximum price; building new schools in areas representing growth patterns in the county; gradually hiring 13 additional maintenance workers and eight additional maintenance workers to staff projects crews; and upgrading the work order system to be automated and comprehensive.

Martineau said he would like to see the school system completely eliminate deferred maintenance projects over the next 10 years and engage only in preventive maintenance beyond that.

If the plan is embraced and implemented, Recio estimated savings at $1.5 million for the first year, estimating the savings at close to $12.6 million over the next five years.

The study, the consultants said, should be a catalyst to get the county and school district talking.

"The biggest concern was that it needed to be a document that gave good reason to both the school board and the county commissioners would want to use it as a start -- as a strategy to want to work together," Martineau said.

He added that the long-range facilities master plan will be a valuable tool for keeping the two groups updated and current -- and could help make future funding requests "increasingly routine."

Beyond ways to determine funding needs and the best approach to secure those funds, the school board was asked to consider lobbying for money from state legislators.

Commissioner Efton Sager said if there is any surplus in the Senate, as has been suggested, now would be the time to campaign for it.

"If the state is not going to give us money now, I can assure you when they're down in a couple of years, they're not going to give it to us then," County Manager Lee Smith said.

Superintendent Dr. Steven Taylor said he would be interested in having low-wealth funding restored for the district.

"It's not full funding, but there's been some discussion about disadvantaged funding. We have been on that list ... have not received it yet but would like to lobby for that," he said.

Any assistance would be appreciated, Taylor said. Discretionary cuts cost the district about $2 million in recent years when 58 positions had to be cut locally, he said, while $5 million a year is needed to pay utility costs.

"The more important thing we need to lobby for is our incentive for teacher recruitment and retention, to attract more teachers," Taylor said. "That's just a array of things that I think we can work jointly on."

State government should take more responsibility for sharing in the funding, Martineau said.

Smith said the commission had studied a variety of ways to secure additional money for schools, such as privatization.

"We know you have lost funding, been hit by the state. We're very serious about the issue of these two boards coming together on these issues and lobbying hard," he said.

Commission Chairman Atlas Price called for his board to support a motion to lobby for restoring full funding of low-wealth money and reducing the Medicaid burden to the community. He received unanimous backing from his board, followed by endorsement from the school board.

Smith said the low-wealth funding could equate to about $3 million. Medicaid costs the county about $7.5 million, which translates to local dollars for the county if the state took over that funding.

Smith tacked on a request for attorneys of the two boards to review other possible legislative bills as to their merits for the school system, and discuss them prior to the commission's next meeting on May 23.

The next step will be the appointment of committees to begin work on forming the facility plan, as well as launching more joint meetings between the two boards. Smith said his first goal was to meet with Taylor every two weeks.

Taylor said he and his staff would be studying the thick document closely in the coming months.

"There's some things that we certainly agree with regarding the facilities plan. We're certainly willing to look at the process," he said.

After a stalemate for the last six years, Taylor said, "It's high time that we move forward and provide for our kids. It has to be a joint effort. What's good for children is good for everyone."

Price said he would like to see the boards agree to disagree, "stop the stone-throwing and get on with the problem.

"Let's be patient, let's work together and let's talk to one another. Let's use everything that's available to us to resolve this problem in Wayne County. It can be done."