By SHANNON WATKINS
At Tuesday night’s joint board meeting, the first, lengthiest and most debated item was the middle school consolidation and the renovation of Dublin Elementary School.
After a light meal offered to all present before the meeting, School Board Chairman Mike Barbour followed Board of Supervisor Joe Sheffey’s opening remarks by saying he thought joint meetings should be held more often. “These are always candid and productive meetings,” he said. “Thank you very much for hosting us.”
“Mr. Barbour, I forgot to tell you, there is a cost for the food, so we’ll send you a bill for that,” joked Sheffey.
“Well probably have to make the food a joint service,” Barbour fired back, smiling, to group laughter. “We’ll divide it up based on who ate what.”
After this moment of levity, the boards turned to the school board’s policy decision to recommend the renovation and expansion of Dublin Elementary and consolidation of Pulaski and Dublin middle schools in a discussion that lasted a little over an hour.
School Superintendent Dr. Tom Brewster reminded the Board of Supervisors that numerous hearings and studies were conducted, and that the school board at this time is only asking for funds to pursue engineering plans, site selection and design work for the renovation and expansion of Dublin Elementary School and the consolidation of the middle schools, which will help clarify the costs of actually tackling the projects. He said this after Barbour noted that the school board had sent the Board of Supervisors a formal letter to this effect.
Sheffey asked, “Is there a time frame you wanted the Board (of Supervisors) to respond to the request?” Brewster said as soon as possible, though he said that even if it were started tomorrow, it would be difficult even to get it on next year’s ballot for a referendum.
Director of Operations Ronnie Nichols told the Board of Supervisors that the site selection design work could take up to a year, and that the Dublin Elementary project has 30 acres of land to work with.
“It would be very difficult to move forward with any kind of financing or referendum without doing that kind of site work,” said Brewster of getting site assessments, design plans and other preparations ready. “The study provided approximate numbers that were based on seat estimates, classroom space, size and such, design work would provide you with the absolutes that you need to make a better decision.”
“Dr. Brewster, if the county goes to the expense of designing a consolidated middle school, and those numbers come in somewhere in the range of what the estimates are, and the county doesn’t have the appetite for that debt, haven’t we just wasted that money?” asked McCready.
“I don’t think you’ve wasted the money in terms of trying to make an informed decision about something that’s going to affect the future of Pulaski County for the next 50 years,” replied Brewster, “and this is a pretty big decision, and I wouldn’t want to make any decisions regarding financing, or if I was a citizen and this was on a ballot referendum, without good numbers. So it’s not a waste of money when you consider how important this is for the next 50 years of growth.”
“What having the design work done does is allow you to have some control over your cost,” said Barbour. “You in fact have a design that comes in, I’ll just pick a number, $50 million, you can go back to the architects and ask, ‘How can we do this to save five or 10 percent? Can we change the footprint, what can we do in terms of mechanical systems, roof systems?’ I think what typically occurs in most projects is that when you get the design, you start using a sharp pencil to see what you can do to reduce the cost of construction.”
“I think one of the questions the voters have been asking me is what kind of cost are we talking about and how are we going to pay for that,” said McCready, “and I think if we don’t have that discussion now, it’s difficult to make a decision to proceed to spend $750,000.” The amount referred to how much the design plan was estimated to cost. “We need to at least talk about the costs we’ve been discussing, even if they’re 10 percent high, we need to discuss the cost and what kind of bond payment that means to our county. Voters and constituents are hungry for that kind of information.”
He continued, “The Board of Supervisors has retained a bond council, as some of you may know, earlier this year Pulaski County was the lead jurisdiction that tried to refinance Commerce Park. One of the things the bond council pointed out to us was that Pulaski County was too dependent on key taxpayers to pay our revenue. For example, Volvo’s our number one taxpayer. If they leave us, that’s a huge hole in our budget.” He said the bond experience was one of auction, which puts the outcome beyond control. He also mentioned municipal bankruptcies such as Detroit’s, which make it harder for other localities to get bonds.
McCready also said per the bond council, a 20-year general obligation bond could currently be had at a 4.3 percent interest rate, or a 20-year general obligation school bond for 4.04 percent. A bond issuer, he said, would take two to three percent off the top of the money given. He also said the ultimate outcome of such a bond would likely be a 17-cent, or 29 percent, rise in property tax rates for the county. “Over the life of that loan we would pay $26 million in interest costs,” McCready said of the 4.04 percent rate. “These are all round numbers, of course,” he added.
He continued by pointing out existing debt. “Presently the county has $27,267,000 of school debt on the books, with the main one being Riverlawn, $17,525,000. Our annual debt service for the county for schools is $2.798 million. So these are all figures where we’re at today. And I think the voters are very interested to see some sort of idea of how much money the school board is asking us to spend, and where that might come from. So to step forward on design before we have an idea of what the financial ramifications will be, is tough to me.” He nonetheless praised the school board for having a flexible schedule.
“Andy, I think your point is well taken. People need to have some idea of the cost we’re talking. Absolutely,” said school board member Joe Guthrie. He echoed an earlier point of discussion that a significant portion of debt would roll off from McCready’s figures in the next five years. Guthrie also said that in terms of interest rates, “There’s a time coming when four percent’s going to sound like a real bargain.
“If we do not proceed with something, it does not mitigate the fact that we have two middle schools who are in excess of 60 years old now,” Guthrie continued. “We have a high school that’s 40 years old. In our meetings, we didn’t hear that we should do nothing. I voted to consolidate middle schools because I didn’t hear a more compelling reason why we should take one of the other options, which are more costly. What we are proposing is the lowest cost alternative to providing future education in a county that really desperately needs a new facility or facilities for its sixth to eighth graders.”
“The Board of Supervisors has on our goals and objectives to make improvements for our middle schools,” said McCready. “We show them as improvements or consolidations. So in effect, we are with you that we should do something. There is a desire to make improvements, but there’s only one choice. I would ask, any many folks have asked me, is do we have any other alternatives?”
“That issue has been studied very carefully,” he said, referring to Brewster, who agreed.
Board of Supervisors member Ranny O’Dell asked if merely renovating the schools, including adding air conditioning, might not be a better option, but Guthrie and school board Vice Chairman Jeff Bain advised that consolidation was the cheapest option under the OWPR report, given the extensive work renovation would entail. McCready pointed out that the renovations called for extra square footage and asked why renovation could not be done on the existing buildings’ footprints.
“The reason is that we’re using auxiliary buildings at both schools for classes,” said Brewster. Nichols also pointed out that modern Department of Education standards require more from schools, and the extra square footage addressed this gap, and Guthrie said that Pulaski Middle School in particular has eight mobile classrooms outside due to space issues.
O’Dell asked if the student population was going up or down, and was told by the school board that over the last couple of years it has remained the same.
“If the demographic trends continue, we already have significantly more students at Dublin Middle School than Pulaski Middle School,” said Barbour. “We spend roughly the same amount of money to renovate them, 15 years from now, we have 300 more students at Dublin than Pulaski, we’ll be making a decision at that time to spend money again.”
“What if I suggest to my fellow Board of Supervisors members, I know that the school board has staff to do research and make recommendations back, let’s have our county staff to make a recommendation back to us, on the information that’s been shared, and that’ll give us a better feel for what this will cost, and things like this. Does that seem reasonable?” said Sheffey.
“Just from a logistic standpoint,” said County Administrator Pete Huber, “if you put out a request for proposals, there’s no commitment in getting proposals from the architects. And then in that, it might be helpful to get them to price out a couple of interim steps on how you phase in the design work, such that the Board of Supervisors knows what kind of money they’re looking at for design work.”
After the meeting, when asked for comment, Guthrie said, “I voted in favor of the consolidated school because I was in favor of the one that solved our needs most economically, cheaper than building two new schools or renovating the old ones by about $20 million. I think that we’ve got to do something, I think the time to do it is now. As I pointed out in the discussion, I don’t think interest rates are going to get any lower, I don’t think building costs are going to get any cheaper, and I don’t think our need is going to go away. I think the time is right to move forward.”
Of the county’s response to the school board, he said, “I think the Board of Supervisors has a very important job of making sure the residents of Pulaski County know their taxes are being spent well, and they are very intent on making sure that happens. I also hope they realize the need we have for schools, and how important that is to people in our county, how important that is for economic development in our county, and that we put those two concerns together, and think about what can we do, and do most cost effectively.”
“The school board has made their policy decision,” said McCready, when also asked for comment. “In my position, I’ve got to look at the finances, and that’s what I was trying to focus in on, is the financing on everything, and that’s why I shared some of my concerns.”