Questions about school cost, funding could delay Loudon vote

Hugh G. Willett,

LOUDON - Just two weeks after the Loudon County school board passed it on a split vote, a proposed school building program is running the gauntlet with some county commissioners.

County Commissioner Wayne Gardin isn't mincing words when it comes to his thoughts about funding the building plan.

"There's no way I'm going to vote for it. Not with the economy in the shape it's in," Gardin said.

The new building plan, which the school board approved on a 7-3 vote Jan. 9, is estimated by proponents to total between $30 million and $35 million. The plan includes a new middle school in Loudon and a new prekindergarten-to-12th-grade school for Greenback.

Gardin says he is concerned that the only way to fund the new plan is to increase property taxes.

"Most of the people I've talked to have made it clear that they do not want another property tax increase," he said.

But, according to school board member Van Shaver, no new property tax increase will be required to fund the plan. At the estimated $125 per square foot, the plan could be funded for about $2.5 million per year, Shaver said.

The county is about to retire several large debts, which should free up credit to fund the building, he said. The county has more than $7 million sitting in a general fund, and the school department has another $2.5 million, he said.

"There's a lot of spare millions lying around that could be used to help get the work started," he said.

Commissioner Don Miller has been working with the school board to present the plan to the commission. Miller said he will ask the board to provide accurate construction costs as well as estimates of the operating costs for the schools before presenting the plan.

Shaver said he has cost-per-square-foot estimates based on recent school construction data. The only variable is the number of square feet the school board decides to build, he said.

The concern about long-term operating costs is misguided, Shaver said. New construction will always be more efficient, especially when some schools being replaced, such as Greenback, are more than 50 years old, he said: "If anything, the operating costs will go down."

Miller said he would prefer that the board not present the plan to the commission until the county is certain how much money will be provided by the state.

Waiting until all the funding sources are fully understood could delay voting on the plan until the fall, Shaver said. "We have the resources to move forward with the plan now," he said.