12/19/07 — Board OKs facilities proposal first step

View Archive

Board OKs facilities proposal first step

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on December 19, 2007 1:46 PM

The Board of Education voted 6-1 Tuesday to accept a $23 million proposal from the county commission to fund a portion of the district's construction plan.

But that does not mean the rift between the two boards is completely mended.

Several school board members balked at the proposal, appreciative of the first step, but concerned that the amount came up short of the most recent $105 million facilities plan.

County Manager Lee Smith announced Friday that the county would fund renovations and improvements to 10 county schools through existing revenues, which include the state lottery and half-cent sales tax. Proposed financing for the next three years would come from $16.4 million borrowed through certificates of participation, with $4.5 million cash to be divided equally between the county and the schools.

At a called meeting Tuesday afternoon to discuss the proposal, the school board questioned the gifting of money that essentially belongs to the schools. Currently, the district already anticipates the state lottery and half-cent sales tax and factors that into its budget for programs and other needs.

"Out of the $23 million that's being proposed, it's monies that are already ours," board member Pete Gurley said. "All they're doing is approving how we spend it. So basically we're funding this almost totally."

Board member John P. Grantham, the sole dissenting vote against the proposal, was disappointed in the county's gesture.

"I would like to think that we had a quantum leap in relations" with the county, he said. "I don't think that's transpired.

"This isn't the school board's plan. We were not even involved in making this plan. This was something represented by the county manager."

He added that he had no problem receiving $23 million, but would have preferred having a say in how it is spent.

"We look at things a little differently, I believe," he said, adding that he is still partial to giving the public a voice.

"I'm not in favor of putting anything over on the taxpayers," he said. "They should at least have a choice. I think the people should have an opportunity to vote on it instead of just making a pre-emptive strike."

Gurley said the proposal "hurts the possibilities of a bond issue" and in turn shoots down the likelihood of new school buildings anytime soon.

"I'm not happy with (the proposal) but at least it's a beginning," he said. "It's more than we have."

Board member Shirley Sims said at least the projects on the proposal included some of the most pressing needs, which have been on school board priority lists for years.

"I think we're wasting our time if we wait around for people to decide," she said, referring to a bond referendum in the near future.

"I'm for getting started," board member Dave Thomas said. Any further delays, he said, would only mean falling further behind in facilities needs, not to mention increasing construction prices.

"I do believe we need to get something going," he said. "But there's some real red flags in this."

Board member Rick Pridgen said it is easy to become excited about the possibility of some movement to the long-existing stalemate between the two boards. But after five years and six previous proposals, it's disconcerting to see the latest proposal "pretty much mirrors the plan we had on the table five years ago," he said.

"Whether we like it or not, we all want something to begin. Over five years' time, it seems like we're only getting a portion."

Pridgen said he is ready to see the process move along.

"This is pretty much a cut and dried done deal, the $23 million we're looking at here. I don't feel we need to wait three years to discuss a bond," he said. "We have spent too much time working on this for us not to postpone that second phase of putting new buildings in, new facilities in."

Schools superintendent Dr. Steve Taylor agreed. He said he had received no commitment regarding a possible bond referendum in the future, but was hopeful -- even if there could be a "gentleman's agreement" -- that the county would ensure the district could maintain its fund balance for bills and emergencies.

"Should the lottery funding dip and half-cent sales tax have to be used, we still want to maintain $2.5 million in that account," he said.

Taylor told the board he understood their disappointment that -- yet again -- the latest facilities plan was being stalled, adding that he is "still hoping against hope there's going to be some state bond money."

The one issue the board was unanimous on was that it is again being positioned poorly by the county.

"I think we all would agree 7-0 on the way we feel we have been treated," Ms. Sims said.

"But once it looks like there's a ray of hope, we need to decide about taking that chance or losing that ray of hope."