02/13/08 — More work ahead for facilities' discussion

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More work ahead for facilities' discussion

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on February 13, 2008 1:54 PM

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the final installment of a five-part series on school funding and facilities needs in Wayne County.

When 2007 began, the Wayne County Board of Commissioners identified school facility improvements as one of its primary goals and directed County Manager Lee Smith to work on finding a starting point.

Now that he has done that and 2008 is beginning, the board is hoping other issues can begin to be discussed, including academic programs to improve workforce development and test scores, as well as facility issues such as school construction, consolidation and redistricting.

"Basically all we said (in 2007) was, 'Lee, what can we do without a tax increase,'" Commissioner Jack Best said. "And I think he did a good job."

Former chairman, Commissioner John Bell explained that they all had a voice in the process, but that once the school system submitted its $105.1 million facility needs priority list ($121 million counting first-year operating expenses) it was up to Smith to put the details together.

"He didn't just do something on his own, all of us had input into it," Bell said. "But the school board came up with the priority list. We just looked at that and said, 'Here are the five or six projects they said they need right away and that we can consider right away.' We just designated Lee to be our spokesman."

Then, when the $23 million plan was done, he continued, each of the commissioners had a chance to hear about it and sign off on it before Smith took it public -- even though they acknowledged that it falls short of addressing all of the needs.

"It's not close to what the school board thought they needed, and I agree. But this gives us time to get started and then we can evaluate closely what the next needs are," Commissioner Efton Sager said. "It's a good start."

And, perhaps most important for now, is the fact that it does not call for higher property taxes.

"We didn't have to do a tax increase. That's what I like about it," said commission Chairman Bud Gray.

Now, Commissioner Andy Anderson noted, the board can take a harder look at the rest of the facility and academic needs -- needs that are likely to require a tax increase by way of a bond referendum

"This gives us a chance to go out and work with the school board to determine what the needs are for the next 20 years and how much they'll cost," he said. "Then we can go out and sell that to the public, because it will definitely require a tax increase.

"This just gives us time to have some breathing room."

Had a referendum been brought this year, Commissioner Atlas Price continued, it likely would have been defeated.

"We didn't want to present something that was going to be turned down," he said. "I think the amount of it and the fact people are being slapped from all sides with the cost of living, I don't think it would have passed."

But, the commissioners continued, once phase one is underway, academic improvements continue and people are convinced the existing schools are being used as efficiently as possible (an analysis requirement was included in the $23 million plan), they think the community will be much more supportive.

"If we go out and the two boards express the need, I think the general public will buy into it," Bell said. "A long as they can see that we're together and that the need is there, it will make it easier."

They did, however, admit that because of the county's vast array of coming capital needs, including the county Health Department, Department of Social Services, Services on Aging, the library system and the jail, there is a chance that a bond referendum could be multi-faceted -- much like the last $32 million one approved in the early 1990s for schools, courthouse renovations, the water districts and the industrial park.

There are not, however, any estimates on how much such a referendum might cost.

"It would probably need to be more comprehensive (than just the schools)," Price said. "But I don't think you can get a bond referendum for every need. I think we need to look at what we can do with (certificates of participation) and the county's own reserves."

Still, with the $23 million phase one expected to take two to three years to complete, all the commissioners agreed that any bond referendum is at least a year or two away.

But as they said before, that lag time should allow them and the school board members ample opportunity to figure out how best to address the rest of the school system's facility and academic needs.

"I think we've turned a corner," Commissioner J.D. Evans said. "This is an excellent beginning. Now we have to study the whole situation. We cannot piecemeal it. We have to do what's best for the whole county and we've got to deal with some concepts we've been reluctant to."

That means, they explained, looking beyond just facility needs.

"The taxpayers want to make sure when we spend their money, it's spent wisely. There are needs in the schools other than facilities," Sager said.

"My personal opinion is that people want the two pieces (academics and facilities) to move together," Bell added. "They don't mind building buildings, but they want the reading, writing and arithmetic right, too."

But, Evans noted, there's only so much control the commissioners can exercise, especially on the academic side.

"It is not our role to provide direction," he said. "That is absolutely the role of the school board.

"The commissioners' role is to provide the basic infrastructure and funding that will enable the school board to move the county to the next level. Working together, we can make this happen."

Still, they said, there are some things they would like for the school board to at least consider and discuss.

On the academic side, those include increased vocational and workforce development programs.

"Vocational education, to me, is a very important issue and I'm not sure we're doing enough," Price said. "I'm not faulting anybody, but I'm afraid we're not doing enough in our high schools or our community college.

"You're going to lose a certain percentage (of dropouts) regardless of what you do, but vocational education teaches a lot of students that would have just dropped out and trains them in a profession they can go out and make a living with."

On the facilities side, they would like to see school construction, consolidation and redistricting all discussed.

"That is something the school board is going to have to deal with. That's not something we have any say in. But we would encourage them to be fiscally responsible and not build unnecessary new schools if all they have to do is move a few students around," Bell said.

"I think it's all got to be on the table," Anderson added. "If we've got empty schools around and we're asked to build new schools ... I'm going to do what the voters want, but I don't think a bond will pass unless we have a good plan."

But, Evans said, the bottom line is that every school needs to be brought up to the same level as the others.

"We've got too many people slipping through the cracks," he said. "We've got to do something to change the aspiration level of children. That's the critical thing, and it's going to take effort in all five areas -- community, schools, home, church and media -- to find solutions that will enable our youngsters to aspire to gain the necessary knowledge to function at a higher level."

"The children with a better-than-average home life, they're going to get an education. But they're not the ones we're worried about. They aren't the ones filling our jails. They're not the ones coming into the welfare programs," Best added. "We're passionate about fixing this problem.

"Without fixing this problem, I've wasted four-and-a-half years of my life, because the rest of it doesn't matter. This is the only problem that matters -- that we educate all the children of Wayne County and make sure they stay in school and get an education that can make them productive members of this community."