By Scott Robertson
The Washington County Board of Education created a four-item priority list of upcoming capital projects for the benefit of the County Commission’s Health, Education and Welfare Committee last Thursday at a joint workshop attended by both bodies. But a hoped-for comprehensive year-to-year plan of which items on that list will be funded at what levels during what years will have to wait.
The workshop came about after Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton received authorization from the board to ask the commission to fund technology improvements for all county classrooms in the form of new audio electronics including wireless microphones and speakers. The price tag on that package is $640,000.
The current county budget includes a 40-cent property tax increase, approved and implemented this year. Twenty-nine cents of that goes toward education, including funding for capital projects, operations, and new school buses. That budget, however, was created before Halliburton brought forth “The Washington Way,” which includes several new priorities.
So when Halliburton took the audio request to the commission, which funds all capital expenditures for the county, the HEW Committee asked that she discuss with the board where that expenditure would fall on a list of priorities that now includes a new K-8 school in Boones Creek, renovations of the county’s schools in Jonesborough to include an academic magnet high school, and a Career and Technical Education high school.
Commissioners had hoped Thursday’s meeting would reconcile the new items on that list with the existing five-year capital improvement plan set forth under the administration of former Director Ron Dykes.
Thursday night’s meeting began with a presentation by Mitch Meredith, the county budget and finance director, on funding options. Meredith first showed the current plan, created with the five-year plan in mind. It included $30.575 million for the Boones Creek K-8 and $9.9 million for renovations to Jonesborough Elementary and Middle Schools.
Next, he showed a funding model for the full Washington Way plan, including $30.6 million for Boones Creek, $23.6 million to convert Jonesborough Elementary into a K-8, $8.7 million to convert Jonesborough Middle into an academic magnet high school, and $7.9 million to convert Boones Creek Elementary to a career and technical academy. Doing it all at once, Meredith’s model showed, takes the available fund balance into the red as early as 2018. “This is what you call maxing out the credit card,” Meredith told the commissioners and board members in attendance. “In fact, it more than maxes it out.”
Finally, Meredith presented what he called Washington Way – Modified. That plan only allocates $25.7 for the Boones Creek K-8, $14.4 million for the Jonesborough Elementary/K-8 conversion and $5 million for the Jonesborough Middle/Academic Magnet conversion. No money was budgeted for the CTE Academy in the modified plan.
Since the board had already voted to approve The Washington Way, the current plan is no longer relevant. Therefore, Meredith posited, “For the school board, the decision elements are the board’s vision for meeting the educational needs of the students of Washington County, the timing of construction, the design elements like roofing and HVAC, and non-academic amenities. And for the county commission those decision elements are approval of funding and approval of any requisite debt.”
Addressing the school board, Meredith added, “You all have the tough part of this. You all have the difficult decisions.”
After an intermission, architect Tony Street showed plans for the Boones Creek K-8 as currently configured. The first question Street entertained was from board Vice-Chairman Keith Ervin, who wanted to know if the concession stand for the gymnasium had a cooker hood. “We need to be able to sell cheese sticks,” he explained. Street said the inclusion of a hood might raise the cost of the school a couple thousand dollars. “Well,” Ervin replied, “we need to get that in there.”
The board ended the meeting by voting to list the Boones Creek K-8 as its first priority, the technology package as its second, the Jonesborough projects as its third and the CTE school as its fourth.