School buildings remain unfunded

Mary E. Hinds News Herald
The latest attempt to get the county school building program funded was delayed again Monday night as the Loudon County Commission members voted not to commit to funding Phase I of the program - a decision that appeared to upset some school board members and parents. 

During the public speaking portion of the agenda, Terry Johnson, the grandmother of four children attending Greenback School, addressed the commission. She urged the commissioners to "use the brain God gave you" and told them Loudon County was becoming a "laughing stock."

Commissioner Bob Franke, who represents Greenback, moved for the commission to vote to secure funding for the first phase of the building program which includes a new school in Greenback, renovations to the Philadelphia School's cafeteria and a new middle school in Loudon. The original plan included combining Fort Loudon Middle School and Loudon Elementary, but that fourth project was put on hold until the new middle school is completed. 

Franke walked the commission and the audience through the highlights of the process that began in 2006 as the county tried to settle on a plan to update county schools to relieve overcrowding and renovate or replace buildings that are less-structurally sound.

Among those on the list, the Greenback School was declared not salvageable when the Public Building Authority (PBA) recommended an entirely new school be built since parts of the school date to the 1930s. The facility is currently a hodgepodge of renovations and additions. The fire marshal ordered the school to be put on a fire watch several times because of multiple fire code violations, Fanke explained. The school has been closed for a variety of problems over the past four years, including being closed multiple times due to gas leaks in the past year. 

Franke said the county will need to borrow an amount ranging from $32 to $40 million depending on interest rates. He said the school board has repeatedly asked the commission for the maximum amount that would be forthcoming so they can plan accordingly. He also said he felt some commissioners were using "delaying tactics" to stall the program and the county runs the risk of interest rates going up, not to mention increased prices for materials.

Franke said he was willing face the political consequences and raise property taxes if that's what it takes to get the building program going. He moved for the county mayor and his staff to seek out bonds in the amount of approximately $38 to $40 million. Commissioner Austin Shaver seconded the motion.

Franke also said if the county moves now it would be possible to have the Philadelphia School cafeteria renovations done by next fall, the new middle school completed by 2011 and a new Greenback School by 2012. 

Commissioner Don Miller spoke up in opposition to the plan. He said that while he felt all three of the projects were needed the only way to do all three at once is with a property tax increase. He also said tax pennies taken from other funds in this year's budget to put more in the Rural Debt Fund would have to be put back in order for school employees and county employees to have the raise they did not get in the current budget and that other county departments will need more funds as well.

Miller said he also feared shortfalls in the federal and state budget would trickle down to the county and the deficit would have to be made up with county funds. 

Shaver said the plan was to put pennies in the Rural Debt Fund for the building program and he felt it would be "unwise to take money out of the Rural Debt Fund." Miller said it would be better to wait six months before looking for bonds and that such a delay would not slow down the building program.

The commission has been waiting for the school board to present refined cost estimates from contractors so the commission would have a better idea of costs before approving the funding. "Then we tell the school folks 'here's what we can do,'" Miller said. Miller said he estimates the county could borrow approximately $25 million without a tax increase - an amount that could effectively take a new Greenback School off the ist, which is projected to cost approximately $26 million. "Merit is preparing to give us refined cost figures," said Greenback School Board representative Lisa Russell after the meeting. She added if the refined figures come in lower a new Greenback School could still be within reach, but the rest of Phase I could not be done at the same time. 

Shaver said the role of the commission is to "do what is necessary for the citizens of Loudon County" and the real question is, do the county schools need Phase I of the building program. He said the answer to that is "yes we do." He added that, if all waste is eliminated from the county budget and there still isn't enough money to fund the program, he too would vote to raise property taxes. "The longer we wait we run the risk of pricing ourselves out of the market," Shaver said adding that the financial market is "unlikely to get better." 

After more debate, the commission voted and Franke's motion failed by a 7 to 3 with Miller, Gardin, Chris Park, Roy Bledsoe, Earlena Maples, Nancy Marcus and David Meers voting against the motion. Franke, Shaver and Harold Duff voted in favor of the motion.

The large audience, composed of many Greenback residents, stormed out of the meeting after the vote was taken. 

Russell said a lack of foresight has lead to Greenback School deteriorating and the county being forced to put more money in a school that's on its last legs. "Had the county commission and the school board listened to the PBA study in 2006 and built a Greenback School, we wouldn't be sitting here, our children wouldn't have to be dealing with life-safety issues and we wouldn't have to be consistently putting tax-payer dollars into that school," she said.