02/19/08 — Schools and commissioners talk about financing, timetable

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Schools and commissioners talk about financing, timetable

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on February 19, 2008 1:59 PM

Hoping to continue the lines of communication that they say have opened up since the local business community helped pave the way for the recent $23 million school facilities plan, the Wayne County Board of Commissioners and Board of Education sat down Monday morning for an update on where things stand.

And, all in all, despite the school board wanting the commissioners to commit to a faster timetable than they are willing to, the two sides seemed to be more or less on the same page -- a trend they hope will continue as they agreed to hold at least two more such meetings before finishing the 2008-09 budget this spring.

"We need a whole lot more communication like this," school board Chairwoman Thelma Smith said. "We've got to have more of these kinds of things."

Kicking the discussion off Monday was County Manager Lee Smith, who gave a brief rundown of where the county stands in terms of long-term capital projects, referring to the need to finance a $7 million upgrade of the communications system this year, as well as the future needs of the jail, health department, social services and services on aging.

But he emphasized that, according to the board, education is its No. 1 priority.

Unfortunately, however, because of the other capital and operational needs, they won't be able to afford the rest of the $105 million plan right now, he said.

"The county can't do it," he said. "You cannot afford to do all these projects over the next five years. Either you've got to split the projects up or reduce the cost."

That's why, he explained in answer to a question from school board member Pete Gurley, the county is projecting the next $80 million to be split up over the next seven or eight years. He did acknowledge, though, that in 2009, discussions about a bond issue might begin.

But for now, school and county officials agreed, work on the first phase -- the $23 million plan -- is continuing on schedule.

"We're moving forward with our architect search," county school Superintendent Dr. Steve Taylor said. "After we complete that process, we'll be moving forward with hiring a construction manager."

The district has also been preparing for the second phase of performance contracting and working to make sure the necessary mobile classrooms will be in place once demolition and construction efforts begin at Eastern Wayne and Norwayne middle schools, Taylor said.

But, Smith noted, before any of the construction can begin, there are still five policy recommendations that the school board must adopt.

"The $23 million is contingent on these policies being worked out," he said.

Among those, one that garnered some discussion was the need to establish guidelines for the use of mobile classrooms -- a process that Sprunt Hill, assistant superintendent of auxiliary services, said the district is working on.

Currently there are 110 such units in Wayne County.

"We feel there is a place for mobile units to be used to adapt to growth," Smith said.

Another item the two boards discussed, but came away in agreement on, was the need for a small projects capital budget.

After approving the $23 million request late last year, the school system asked the commissioners to ensure that at least $2.5 million in annual capital funds would be available for both expected and unexpected expenses -- a number that Smith and his staff accepted.

The other policy issues discussed were the need to develop an efficiency cost analysis for all existing facilities and the need to analyze current trends and alternatives before constructing new schools.

"We know when we look at new construction that we've got to look at all acceptable options out there," Taylor said, noting, though, that the district already does.

But, Smith replied that he just wants to make sure that everything -- including school consolidation and redistricting -- is considered in the future.

"I know closing schools or changing catchment areas are emotional issues," he said. "We would ask that they be looked at ... to be able to answer to the taxpayers for accountability's sake."

The final policy recommendation -- that the school board implement operating budget increase guidelines, much like the county's 2 percent cap -- also was discussed, with the two staffs agreeing to work on a solution before the school system submits its preliminary budget for 2008-09 on April 1.

"It certainly would help us plan," Taylor said. "It certainly would be helpful to know year to year what to expect."