05/14/07 — Facilities plan debate nearing end

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Facilities plan debate nearing end

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on May 14, 2007 1:46 PM

After debating five school construction plans in the last four years, both the Wayne County Board of Education and the Wayne County Board of Commissioners are hoping they will soon be able to come to a consensus and move forward on plan No. 6 sometime within the next few months.

Asking for about $105 million to address the needs at 16 of the county's schools, the plan was formally approved by the school board May 7 and will be discussed by both boards -- along with the school system's current expense budget -- on May 22.

At that meeting, officials on both sides of what has sometimes been a heated debate are hoping they will be able to sit down and hammer out the details of how to move forward -- if they can agree on how best to prioritize the projects.

"I'm very optimistic about it," commissioner Atlas Price said. "There has been some conflict (between the boards), but I hope we are working together to have the best education system we can have.

"It's the responsibility of both boards to compromise our differences."

For years, though, those differences have kept the two sides far apart, school board member George Moye said.

"We've done all we can," school board chairwoman Shirley Sims added. "They keep putting up hurdles, but we can't do anything without them and they know that and they're holding that over us.

"And it's not the seven of us they're hurting, it's the almost 20,000 students. We need to stop playing games."

Of course, the commissioners explained, it's not that they don't want to help the school system, it's just that the two elected entities were set up by state statutes to be at loggerheads -- one relying on the other for funding.

"We're trying to act fiscally responsible," commissioner Efton Sager said. "We have a lot of other needs, too, and when you're talking about that kind of money, the general public expects us to act fiscally responsible.

"It all boils down to the fact that if you can't afford a Caddy, you've got to be satisfied with a Chevy."

But, school officials countered, a large part of their frustration has come from the fact that with each plan they would submit, the county would find something wrong with it and ask them to do it again.

The first version was submitted in January 2003. It asked for $58.4 million.

After being asked to reduce the cost, Moye said, they submitted a revised proposal -- $41.2 million -- in May 2003.

Then, in March 2004, a third request -- $82.5 million -- was sent to the county.

The fourth facilities plan in November 2005, he continued, was in response to the commissioners' request for a 20-year schedule. That one totaled about $269.6 million.

That number, however, Moye said, was too large.

"We knew and everybody in Wayne County knew that there was no way that was going to happen," he said.

And so, the commissioners asked for the school board's five-year plan, which was submitted in May 2006 and came in at $90.5 million.

Still, that wasn't enough -- much to the dismay of school officials.

"We've given them whatever they've asked for," county school Superintendent Dr. Steve Taylor said.

But County Manager Lee Smith disagreed.

"They have presented, on several occasions, versions of a school facilities plan," he said, explaining, though, that each one has lacked detail in one way or another, whether in terms of priority or in terms of cost.

Smith acknowledged, however, that the most recent version is a step in the right direction.

It was created after the school system held a series of public facilities meetings in the fall of 2006 -- following the recommendations of consulting firm Evergreen Solutions, which was paid for by the commissioners.

From the suggestions coming out of those sessions, the school board then considered three five-year facilities plans in April.

In the end, though, they settled on their original one from 2006 -- albeit with a $105.1 million price tag.

"The cost of construction has gone up tremendously and it's not going down," said Sprunt Hill, assistant superintendent for auxiliary services for Wayne County Public Schools.

He explained those cost estimates are derived from information provided by the state Department of Public Instruction.

"I don't do this on my own. I'm not just estimating. I'm actually taking from fact what the cost of construction is," Hill said.

Of course, he noted, had the county begun addressing the school system's needs in 2003, the cost would have been nearly $50 million less.

But Smith said that's not necessarily a fair way to look at the issue.

In 2003, he explained, the county could not have even funded the $41 million request.

"The county was not in any position to borrow money," Smith said. "Absolutely it was cheaper then, but it was a matter of could we do it? And the answer was no."

Now, with the county's fund balance around $24 million, he explained that the county is in a position to borrow money for not only school construction, but other capital projects as well.

Still, Smith said, one sticking point is that the county needs more than just the construction plan.

According to rules put in place by the commissioners, they also need to know operating costs before they will commit to any building project.

"If you're going to build a school or add onto a school, you have to determine how your current expense budget is going to change," he said. "The cheapest thing you'll do is build. It's the utilities, the people and the supplies that are where your real expenses are."

Fortunately, Hill said, those numbers -- $15.9 million worth -- are included in this latest proposal and are broken down into which are one-time start-up costs and which would be recurring every year.

But, Smith continued, the commissioners also need the school board to have a prioritized list before they can begin determining how much money the county needs to try to borrow, whether through bonds or other means. Right now, he said, he can't estimate how much the county might be able to afford.

"You have to have this information all at one time," he said.

Once the list of needs is prioritized and the funding comes through, he explained, then they will be able to sit down and fit the projects into a budget.

But that is where the sticking point seems to be.

Taylor is adamant that the school board needs a budget before it can prioritize.

"Assuming we get what we ask for, the whole plan is the priority, but we know we can't get all the money at one time," he said. "But they have to give us a figure. We have to have a figure. That will dictate the priority of the projects.

"We need a budget. The board has said that once we get that number we'll sit down and go 'one, two, three, four ... .'"

Still, officials are hopeful that something good will come out of the meeting on the 22nd -- even if it's just a first step.

"There's an opportunity to make something happen," Smith said. "I think there is some compromise that's going to have to be reached."