10/08/08 — County OKs agreement with schools on buildings

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County OKs agreement with schools on buildings

By Steve Herring
Published in News on October 8, 2008 1:46 PM

Wayne County Commissioner Jack Best Tuesday morning questioned some of the wording in a memorandum of understanding with the Board of Education concerning school construction, but in the end, he was the one who made the motion that lead to unanimous approval of the document.

The only condition the board tacked on was the creation of a new committee made up of commissioners and school board members "to analyze all current educational trends and alternatives before considering construction of new schools."

The committee was the outgrowth of concerns expressed by Best who said he did not like having such an open-ended clause in the memorandum that had been approved with little comment by the school board Monday night.

In the memorandum, the two boards agree to an estimated $20.9 million capital outlay plan to construct facilities and school improvements involving Brogden Primary School at Dudley, Norwayne Middle School at Fremont, Mount Olive Middle School at Mount Olive and Eastern Wayne and Greenwood middle schools. The plan is subject to approval by the Local Government Commission.

Under the agreement, the school board would transfer the property titles to the county for the sum of $1. The county would, in turn, lease the properties back to the school board for the sum of $1.

That, County Manager Lee Smith said, will allow the county to use the property as collateral when borrowing money for school construction projects. The schools would be responsible for all insurance, maintenance and operational costs for the properties.

The school board would be able to repurchase the properties for the sum of $1 at any time after the financing plan has been paid.

Most of the items outlined in the memorandum are prescribed by law such as applying for and receiving sales tax refunds, Smith said.

Smith noted that several years ago the state legislature "took away" the ability of schools to be tax-exempt, so they do not receive sales tax dollars.

"If the county is the owner of the property, then we get credit since we are exempt of sales tax and when you are under construction that can be a sizable amount of money," Smith said.

"It (sales tax) is a paper transaction," he said.

"I look at this (memorandum) as being very positive," Best said. "I can live with it."

"I am not a lawyer, but it seems to me you left that open," he said to county attorney Borden Parker. "Who is in charge of that, when are they going to do that? Is there a timeline? Should it spell out how they are going to do that?"

The school board, Parker said, would handle it and added that there is no timeline.

"I concur with Jack," Commissioner Atlas Price said. "This is too lax to satisfy me."

"When we first sent it to them that paragraph was much more substantial," Smith said. "That paragraph detailed issues such as redistricting, year-round schools. It listed all those things and they came back and said they would look at everything. They said 'there are other things we can look at.' They came back with wording like this."

"I know you remember what you said, but do they remember what was said," Best said. "We are getting ready to have a new board, and they are going to have a new board. It's just open, and I don't feel comfortable with it."

Smith said that based on his conversations with schools Supt. Dr. Steven Taylor that school officials do remember what was said.

"What it is meant to be is for new school construction, not the construction that is going on that we are talking about right now," Parker said. "So the timeline is that they have to do it before they come in and ask you to approve a new school site or new school building."

"They are moving in the right direction," Commissioner J.D. Evans said.

"Absolutely," Best said. "I don't question that at all."

"It develops over a period of time," Evans said. "It just doesn't happen at one time. I am not sure we can put a timeline on it."

In another matter, Best said it appeared the school board had changed its priority list of schools based on the way they were listed in the memorandum.

"My understanding is that if they put all of them out to bid at one time and the question is if it (bid) comes in way over (budget) which one are we going to cut and if it comes in under which one are we going to add," he said.

Smith said he wanted to make a recommendation "in the spirit of the document" that commissioners consider approving the memorandum contingent on appointing a committee to work on the issues broached by Best.

That way, he said, the process can get under way.

"Absolutely," Best said.

"By all means let's move forward with this," Evans said.

Commissioner John Bell said he was concerned about comments he is hearing at candidates' forums, especially some of candidates do not think commissioners play a role in school construction.

"I heard last night (Monday) that the only thing the county commissioners should be doing is funding," Bell said. "They don't understand that we have a part to play in development of this concept. It is a two-board system.

"When commissioners ask for information they are accused of fighting the school board. That is not true."

Schools, Smith said, are a community effort.

Smith said a recent meeting of county and school board officials was one of best meetings he had ever had with school officials.

"It is because, I think, that we are getting each other because I understand more about schools than I did seven, 10 or 15 years ago," he said. "If it did nothing else it forced all of us to look at each other and say what our role is."

"Even though we are still asking some hard questions of the school board, which I think we need to continue to ask, I think our relationship with the school board, and I hope they feel the same way, is that we are communicating better than we ever had," Best said. "I do believe because we have asked hard questions they are better because of that."

"And they have asked us hard questions and we have learned more about ourselves because of the school board's questions," Smith said. "They are understanding more what our issues are with having to finance, the hoops we have to jump through. They have hoops they have to jump through, too. There are some I wished they didn't have and they have got a lot of hoops that conflict with each other."