08/16/06 — Buildings and budgets -- BOE, commissioners talk facilities

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Buildings and budgets -- BOE, commissioners talk facilities

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on August 16, 2006 1:55 PM

After six years of deliberations and five proposed facilities plans, the Board of Education and county commissioners Tuesday agreed to move forward quickly and solicit public feedback on the needs and means to fund construction projects in the school system.

Tuesday afternoon marked the first meeting of the facilities master plan team, which includes representatives from both boards. Members agreed the committee's priorities should be taking action to fix problems at the school, being united in their efforts to do so and asking community members what they think, and getting them to participate in the process.

The group agreed the next steps should be to form subcommittees and to then take the message to the community. Scheduling weekly meetings at the six area high schools could start as early as next week, the group said.

The committee and its charge came from recommendations of Evergreen Solutions, a consulting firm hired by the commission to determine construction and renovation needs for the county schools. Evergreen's report was the basis for much of the school board's presentation at the joint meeting.

"We have been trying to get together and get going on a facilities plan for about six years," said Dr. Steven Taylor, superintendent of schools. "This is the culmination of that effort and meeting together and trying to make some progress."

During that time, he said, the board has submitted five different facilities plans -- ranging from $58 million to $273 million. The latest is a $90-million plan.

Taylor said several hurdles have held up the process, the most recent being Evergreen's request for a five-year plan before the consultant's study could be completed. The board complied and the consultant moved ahead quickly, Taylor added.

"One thing that's unique about this ... is that a lot of work has already been done," he said, explaining that much of the data needed has been collected and provided by the school system.

"I think we are ahead of the curve. We don't have to start at square one. At the same time, there's a lot of work left to be done."

The school board has already met with Advisory Council members, made up of representatives from each school. Building on that with community input is essential, Taylor said.

"We're looking to meet with these Advisory Councils in the feeder patterns" around the county, he said. "We have to schedule these meetings as quickly as possible."

While Evergreen proposed a time line, Taylor said, "We can accelerate it. If there are ways that we can accelerate this process, we would like to."

In addition to the community meetings, Taylor said the consultants also recommended three "focus committees" be established to address the most pertinent issues -- education, facilities and real estate and finance. He added that as soon as both boards submit their list of recommended candidates, the members could be approved and begin meeting.

In the meantime, he recommended the committee set a day and time to hold forums in the feeder patterns, meeting at each of the six high schools served.

"How quickly would you like to start?" Taylor asked the group. "We could knock 'em out every Monday for the next six weeks, except for board meeting time."

The group agreed that time is of the essence, but stalled on whether Aug. 21 would be too soon to provide notice to the public. The following Monday, Aug. 28, was suggested as the target date for the first meeting.

Commissioner Jack Best said if it was possible to publicize the meeting adequately, he would be in favor of meeting Aug. 21. Taylor said the school system would work to make it happen and should be able to announce the date of the first meeting within the next few days.

Several expressed relief that specific action is being taken.

"I'm just ready to get started," school board member Pete Gurley said. "I think we have gone long enough now. I'm glad to see something started. I think this is a beginning."

"I think we have got a chance here to move forward and supply the needs of the county, but we have got to be cooperative and we have got to be together and we have got to sell what comes out of here," Commissioner Atlas Price said. "If we don't sell it, we won't be able to get it."

Taking their message on the road is a positive move, school board member Lehman Smith said.

"We have never gotten far enough to go out into the community," he said.

With some of the state-imposed mandates, including the General Assembly's decision to eliminate refunds of sales taxes to local school systems, funding is even more of an issue, he said.

"I'm sure some of the questions being asked are where and how are the funds coming. People are going to want to know how we're going to come up with it," Smith said.

County Manager Lee Smith said the method will be determined as the needs are assessed.

"I don't pretend to know, but I think we can figure something out about what we need and how to borrow money," he said.

While a bond referendum has been the most-discussed means, Smith said there are a "myriad of things we can do ... there's some alternate ways, and we may have a mix of some ways that we can finance."

He said he also has not ruled out privatization and COPS -- certificates of participation. Privatization is the transfer of ownership from government-owned to a privately owned corporation. Certificates of participation are a type of financing where an investor purchases a share of the lease revenues of a program rather than the bond being secured by those revenues.

"I think we have got to look at all of it and what's best and what's going to be the quickest to get the job done," Smith said. While he said he looks forward to that piece of the process, he noted that "it's going to be emotional for folks because it does involve taxes."

Gurley asked how quickly the bond issue could be put to a vote, if the bond issue were chosen. Smith said it would be May 2007.

"Since our needs are so critical, if we get ready and the plans are approved - have met the guidelines -- possibly we might start with some alternate financing while we're passing the bond," Lehman Smith suggested.

"If there's something that's a safety issue out there," Lee Smith said that could prompt the need to expedite the process. There are refunding options, capital funds, that could offset the costs, he said. Even so, the county would be looking at the fall of 2007 before any funds are available to spend, he added.

After hearing the school system's presentation, Lee Smith expressed several concerns recently raised by the commission. He said the group wants to work cooperatively with the school board to address construction projects and classroom needs and is also interested in securing funds to offset the loss of the sales tax revenue formerly received by the school system.

The possibility of having an impartial third party facilitator was also mentioned, if necessary, but Taylor said he felt the school board would prefer the committee handle business internally.

Lee Smith said the two boards should also seek to find solutions to increase graduation rates, improve test scores, address socio-economic diversity, recruit and retain qualified/certified teachers while providing the optimum classroom environment.

"We're really depending on the school board and your staff to tell us what you need," he said.

Full participation and support of the two boards will accomplish much, he said.

"We're going to do what we can do make the schools better," he said. "We would tell anybody, when you have these community forums, do come, let us know what you think, what works, what doesn't work."

Dr. Taylor said it will take a collaborative effort, not only between the two boards, but from the county as a whole.

"The bottom line is we need to get moving as quickly as possible," he said. "We have started that process today. The next six weeks we have these meetings. I think that shows that we're willing to move as quickly as possible."

Schools are overcrowded, he said, and with a new school year looming, officials want to have a situation where the facilities are equal across the county, he said, "not a situation where you have the 'haves' and 'have nots.'"

The hour-long meeting was a "great start" by the newly formed committee, Taylor said.

"I feel better than I have ever felt about moving forward and seeing some progress," he told the group.

"It's taken a long time to get where we are today, but we're sitting around the table and we're talking ... and ultimately our children will be the winners. Our kids deserve it, our parents deserve it, and our community deserves it."