11/28/10 — Despite interruption, facilities plan moving ahead

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Despite interruption, facilities plan moving ahead

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on November 28, 2010 1:50 AM

The past year has been one of upheaval for the school district's capital improvement efforts -- from the unexpected departure of the assistant superintendent responsible for the schools' facilities plan, to the economic downturn that stalled some of its construction projects.

Sprunt Hill, assistant superintendent for auxiliary services, retired in March after a 32-year career with the district. On Dec. 18, 2009, it was announced that he had been suspended and placed on administrative leave with pay, pending an investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation.

As of this past week, the U.S. Attorney's Office out of Raleigh would only say that the case remains open.

Since his departure, Hill's duties -- which included overseeing the day-to-day school operations, including maintenance, custodial work, technology support and transportation -- have been divided among the district's leadership team. Additionally, the district announced the creation of a new position, internal auditor.

"The auditor came in October," said Nan Barwick, assistant superintendent for finance. "She'll evaluate our policies and procedures (and) goes to visit the schools and departments and following what we have put in place. She's a checks and balances kind of person."

The position is very commonly found in larger school systems, Mrs. Barwick explained.

"In fact, we have been asked for, I guess, three or four years. We have been told that a district this size really needed that kind of position, because I can't monitor all of the internal controls," she said.

Mrs. Barwick is among those who have absorbed some of the duties formerly handled by Hill, whose vacated position will not be filled, said Dr. Steven Taylor, schools superintendent.

Despite any delays created by the economy, Wayne County Public Schools anticipates being able to resume its construction plans as early as the spring, Taylor said.

"The plan that we're on right now is the same plan that was adopted in 2007. The board has not come back and changed anything," said Superintendent Dr. Steven Taylor. "We had a $300-plus million plan, went back to a $105 million Phase 1-type plan and we have just been moving forward with that and the board has taken no action to deviate from that plan."

One positive is that projects at three schools -- Brogden Primary, Mount Olive and Greenwood middle schools -- have continued and, Taylor said, for the most part are nearly complete.

"The question is, where do we move from here?" he said. "The county commissioners are working with county manager Lee Smith, trying to address other priorities on that list."

The latest word is that the district is in line to receive $15 million from a Qualified School Construction Bond, which are federal dollars, said Nan Barwick, assistant superintendent for finance.

"Our board and county commissioners have to approve it and both have signed off on it," Taylor said. "In a recent work session with the county commissioners and the county, they agreed to move forward to make a formal application for the $15 million. With that being the case we'll move forward with the next two projects, Eastern Wayne Middle and Norwayne Middle."

"This is stimulus funding, so there's more hoops that we have go to through," such as advertising and the bidding process, Mrs. Barwick said. "Our immediate concern is getting modular units in place for the children (in those schools) so we can start the project."

Fortunately, Taylor said, the facilities plan is already in place and the district is "ahead of the game" with architectural designs.

"The county has to make applications, they have to sell the bonds," Mrs. Barwick explained. "The county would be the fiscal agent for the money. We would handle the bids and the service orders and it would be a matter of the county making the payments. It's the same as for the lottery -- we do all the legwork and they pay it off. ... This $15 million isn't free money. We have to pay it back."

Projected costs for the Eastern Wayne and Norwayne projects had come in at almost $6.6 million each, Taylor said, so the $15 million should sufficiently cover that.

"We have got to move pretty quickly on this one because the deadline is approaching for selling bonds and getting the formal applications in," Mrs. Barwick said. "Once the county actually sells the bonds, the money is pretty much already available."

District officials are not stopping there, though.

"After these projects, we'll look at the prioritized list -- classrooms at Spring Creek Elementary, classrooms at Charles B. Aycock and some renovations in the central attendance area," Taylor said. "That would probably be the next phase. And then the new schools construction -- a new elementary school in the northern end and three middle schools, in the areas of Spring Creek, Grantham and the northern end."

The economy, though, continues to set the tone, the superintendent said.

"Right now, the lottery money, they have not taken dollars that they did not give back," he said. "So we're assuming that the lottery dollars are going to continue to come in ... (it) was put in place, from our perspective, to help the construction needs of the school system."

As for other incidentals, emergencies or other needs that may arise in the meantime, Mrs. Barwick said the district taps into the reserves secured through the half-cent sales tax, which is state funding.

"We use our half-cent sales tax to do those very things to keep the maintenance and the upkeep of the buildings," she said. "A team of us sit down as we prepare for next year's budget year to review what we want to accomplish in the schools next year. We do take input from the principals, the leadership team, maintenance director. We put them in a priority order because we can't begin to do everything.

"As things come up, we shift and adjust. We use about $2 million a year for those, things like a new roof or when boilers go out or chillers go out."

So far, Taylor added, the district has been able to work within its allocations and not have to go back and ask for additional funding from the state or county.

"I think right now our focus is trying to complete those projects (on the facilities plan list)," he said. "That's been our focus for several years now. (The board) prioritized that and approved it in 2007. Last year we couldn't really follow it and had to pick and choose. We're hoping we're back on track now. We're going to try to follow that down the list."

All in all, Taylor said, the effort has remained positive, considering the ongoing delays there could have been.

"We're excited to continue working on this plan, particularly to finish these projects this year and to be able to start the very same year with the next plan," he said. "I think we're in a good position now to move forward and we're taking advantage of that but working together to do that (with the county commission). Tax authority is their responsibility. ...

"The community has waited a long time, they're deserving of these projects. I think the public will be pleased with these designs, they'll look like new schools."

The superintendent went on to say that it has been good to have the plans in place, so when the funding came through, the district was positioned to proceed.

There may be a few tweaks here and there as it unfolds, he noted, but ultimately the list of priorities on the facilities plan has remained intact.

"It's just as matter of securing the finances and the resources," Taylor said. "The board has done a good job of putting it together. Once everything is in place to move forward, we can work together to make it happen. The bottom line is that's what's good for the children."