By Scott Robertson
Last week in this space we wrote about the short, unhappy life of the Washington County Joint Capital Projects Finance Committee, the misnamed task force made up of equal parts school board and county commission members. It met once and fell apart.
Rather waste any more time beating the dead horse of who’s to blame for the failure (other than to say there’s plenty of blame for both sides), let us instead look to which of the task force’s original goals should still be considered possible and desirable outcomes.
The philosophical goal of having county government work more efficiently is absolutely desirable. The question is how to do that within the existing framework of the commission’s committee structure and in a way that is palatable to the school board members.
The existing division of authority is untenable. When a new school project is undertaken, it is the responsibility of the school board to consider which architect will be hired, which of the architect’s possible plans will be the one to be built, and upon what site the building will be erected. The board also determines, based on the county’s educational needs, what the budget range for the project will be. After all, it costs more to build a school for 1,000 students than one for 500.
But then the responsibility shifts to the county commission. The commission acts as the funding body, which means it has the final say on whether to accept the school board’s recommendation. That means if there’s a tax increase or the issuance of debt needed to fund the project, the board must do the heavy lifting. It also means, theoretically, that if the commission were to decide the school board’s plan involved a level of frivolous spending, the commission could simply vote down the plan.
Finally, negotiation of a sales contract for the land chosen by the school board to be the site of the new project falls to the county’s chief executive, the county mayor.
If it takes 200 words to explain who’s responsible for getting a new school built, then the process could probably be made more efficient.
Let’s look at the projects that are in the hopper right now. First and foremost is the new Boones Creek K-8 school. Taxes were raised in the last year with the principal reason being the funding of that project. It will be done come hell or high water.
Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton’s Washington Way plan also includes another project that can be begun concurrently with the Boones Creek school. The recent tax increase included proposed funding for renovating Jonesborough’s schools. That project involves both renovation and new building. In addition, Halliburton wants to repurpose existing space in Jonesborough for use as an academic magnet school for high performing students. In the task force meeting, Halliburton said she believed necessary renovations to the Jonesborough buildings could be begun while students are still housed in the schools under their current formation.
Here’s where the possibility for more efficient government comes in. Under that proposed task force structure, the county budget director would sit down and work from the amount of funds available (it’s nice to have government that does understand it has limited funds available) to see what amounts will be available to both projects simultaneously. That can still be done. The board can have the input of the man who best understands the county’s finances, either through inviting him to school board meetings, or through direct discussions with the schools director, who would then take what of his recommendations she agreed with to the board, or through the commission’s Health, Education and Welfare Committee.
It is possible to have the funding body working with the decision-making body in a more efficient way without having to restructure either body or create any new levels of bureaucracy. It is possible to work on two school projects at the same time without dumbing down either one. It is possible to do better work than has been done before.
All it takes is the political will for each side to respect the capabilities and desires of the other.