02/25/14 — Schools in works

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Schools in works

By Steve Herring
Published in News on February 25, 2014 1:46 PM

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Superintendent Dr. Steven Taylor thanks the county commission after the board voted 7-0 to allow the district to move forward with plans for two middle schools.

The Wayne County Board of Commissioners reversed its one-week-old course on two school construction projects Monday after behind-the-scene negotiations enabled the commissioners to hammer out a compromise with the county Board of Education.

Commissioners last Tuesday told the Board of Education it could proceed with its $40 million project to build middle schools in the Grantham and Spring Creek communities, but that it had to use design/build for construction.

The school board, which favors a lease agreement with developer and architect Robert Ferris, met in special session Friday and drafted a resolution asking the commission to reconsider its stance.

That resolution, approved by a unanimous vote by commissioners Monday morning, calls for the school board to make a minimum $5 million down payment on the schools and to proceed with the lease purchase agreement and that the annual financing payment not exceed $2.9 million annually for the terms of the 20-year lifespan of the note.

The county will provide $700,000 a year of the $2.9 million payment in exchange for the school district absorbing the operating costs for the two new schools estimated at $1.7 million annually.

The school board will use lottery and sales tax reserves to make its $2.2 million share of the annual payment.

The compromise will require cutting some corners, including no ball fields at both schools. However, auditoriums at the two schools, as well as the solar components to make the school energy efficient, remain in the plans.

The county will be able to "unwind" the operating lease structure after five years and assume the developer's loan. When that happens, the county will have the option to pre-pay the loan at any time without penalty.

It will not require a tax increase.

"The main concerns that we had were the $1.7 million (in additional operating costs) that we would have to absorb plus the $1 million that they were short on their payment," Commissioner Joe Daughtery said after the meeting. "That is $2.7 million. That would call for a tax increase, and we don't want to raise taxes.

"Once we had the vote last Tuesday, the deal fell apart basically. There was no deal and then we were going to get into design/build. Then (school board member) Chris (West) and I got together and said, 'Look. How can we put this back together?' We were able to start from that point, reach out to other board members on both sides, and we finally found a compromise. The contractor gave up a little. The school board gave up a little, and we gave up a little, and it made the deal go."

Commissioners' concessions included providing the $700,000 and allowing the school board to proceed on the lease purchase agreement they had viewed as unknown territory, he said.

"We don't want to forge a lot of new territory," Daughtery said. "We have already got bit a little bit on that (on other projects). Everybody agreed to basically go ahead and move forward. I think we had a unanimous vote from the school board, and we had a unanimous vote from the board of commissioners."

The negotiations started last Wednesday morning and continued over the weekend, he said.

After Monday's vote, commissioners took turns thanking everyone, particularly Daughtery, who worked on brokering the agreement.

"The two boards are set up in such a way as really to cause conflict," Daughtery said. "I don't know why they set it up that way, but they did, and there will be conflict. Maybe they set it up that way to make sure the two boards would sit down and try to do what was in the best interest of the citizens, the children in Wayne County or any county.

"The rub between the two boards was maybe the appearance that this board wanted to inject itself into how you operate the schools. Trust us, we have enough problems over here. We don't want to get involved in operating the schools. What our concern is is to make sure that our citizens are not hit with a tax increase. Once we got beyond that, it was kind of easy sailing there."

"We know that it is a strange relationship, Mr. Daughtery," Superintendent Dr. Steve Taylor said. "The way the state set it up, that is just the way it is. It tends to lend itself to an adversarial role, but I don't view it that way. I view it that just sometimes there is a difference of opinion.

"When you have that you have got to have people who are willing to come to the table to solve their differences and try to reach a compromise, and we have done that today."

Commission Chairman Wayne Aycock said a whole lot of people had worked Wednesday through Sunday to reach the agreement.

"I think it is probably as great of a day for Wayne County that we have had in a long time," he said.

Taylor said he appreciated efforts to reach a compromise that everyone could live with.

"This is a wonderful day for Wayne County," Taylor said. "All of this talk we have heard in the past about the two boards don't get along. No, it is OK to have a difference of opinion. That is all that it is.

"It is not that we don't get along. It is that we have a difference of opinion. But when you compromise, you don't get everything that you want, but hopefully, most of what you want. It is not about us anyway. It is about the kids."

The projects have been on the books for many years, he said.

"I understand your dilemma in not wanting to raise taxes," Taylor said. "We feel the same pain. But I think that you understand that our board has been more than willing to use every dime that we had in the bank to get these projects accomplished.

"What I really like about this, it was a 7-0 vote, not 4-3, 5-2 or 6-1. It was 7-0. I want you to know how much I appreciate that because it says that we are all on the same song sheet. I promise you we are going to live up to our commitment. These communities have waited for these schools for a long time, a long time, and now they are going to come to fruition."