09/07/07 — Schools again chief topic at meeting

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Schools again chief topic at meeting

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on September 7, 2007 1:52 PM

The ever-present issues of education and school funding were once again front and center Thursday night as the Wayne County Board of Commissioners hosted its fifth town hall meeting, this time at Spring Creek High School.

With the crowd slacking back off again - about 10 county residents, some of whom came in late - and only one question submitted, the commissioners and county Manager Lee Smith decided to open the floor up to a little more discussion.

Taking advantage of that opportunity to discuss the county's school needs were former commissioner Arnold Flowers and Charles Wright.

Concerned about how the school board's new building and renovation projects will be funded, Flowers asked whether or not the county had considered a pay-as-you-go method, rather than trying to borrow enough money to do everything at once. Specifically, he targeted the county's 24 percent fund balance as the source of the money.

According to his numbers, which Smith didn't dispute, if the county was to borrow $100 million today, at a 5 percent interest rate over 20 years, the debt would cost approximately $8 million a year to pay off - requiring a tax increase of approximately 14.5 cents.

"It seems to me, if the county's going to borrow this kind of money, we're going to have to have a tax increase," Flowers said.

A more sensible solution, he continued, would be to give the school board a certain amount of money - say $5 million a year - until it can begin paying for some of these projects itself.

"I believe we'd end up with better schools, too, going at it one at a time, rather than trying to do it all at once," he said.

But, while Smith didn't disagree that a small tax hike might be necessary at some point, he explained that the problems with borrowing such a large lump sum are exactly why the county is looking to break the school board's priority list up into smaller pieces. He also explained that the existing fund balance is necessary in order to be able to borrow any significant amount of money.

"Even if we wanted to go borrow $100 million today, we couldn't even do it," he said. "You can't do it all at once. That's why the school board prioritized these projects.

"What we're doing now is going through that list and deciding what exactly the county can afford. I think you'll be talking about a mix (of payment methods)."

But figuring out how to pay for the buildings wasn't what was on Wright's mind.

Speaking to the commissioners, the gathered department heads and the small crowd, he was more interested in what's going on inside the buildings - the division of students, the test scores, the graduation rates and the teacher pay.

And all of his comments drew agreeable responses from the county officials - especially when he explained that according to his calculations, when taking all the schools into account, there are actually slightly more than 1,100 seats not being filled.

"This is not a new statistic," he said.

He complained that nobody really wants to acknowledge the real solution to the overcrowding problem, which is that students need to be assigned to schools in order to make the most efficient use of the available space.

"Utilization of existing schools is vitally important," Smith agreed. "Are there schools that need to be closed? Is re-assignment is something that needs to be looked at. Maybe year-round schools?"

What needs to happen, he continued, is for the school board and the commissioners to sit down and honestly discuss some of these options.

Just like, he added, they need to discuss performance issues.

"The graduation rates, we feel, are not acceptable," Smith said. "That's why we want to partner with the school board. What kind of investment is it going to take to make it better?"

It's why, he explained, they are creating a new program to focus on closing the skill gap between the abilities of high school graduates and the needs of the local businesses and industries.

And commissioner J.D. Evans added, finding more similar solutions is one motivation for having these meetings and talking to as many county residents as possible.

"If you tell us what we need to do, we'll listen and maybe collectively, we can find a better way of doing it," he said.