September 27, 2012
Guilford County Schools shows every sign of having abandoned its plan to build a $72 million high school in western Guilford County – and its administrators spent much the Guilford County Board of Education's Saturday, Sept. 22 retreat trying to sell the school board on a plan that would spend the equivalent amount of money fixing existing schools and bringing them up to a baseline standard of equipment.
The plan is part of a major fight brewing on the Guilford County school board over the millions of dollars the school board will have left over from the almost $1 billion in school bonds approved by Guilford County voters since 2002.
At the retreat, the school board voted to spend $15 million of what will almost certainly be a much larger amount of money left over after the school board is done with the projects promised to voters in 2008. The school board instructed Guilford County Schools Facilities Department administrators to come back with a recommendation on how to spend the money.
The administrators, for their part, came up with a 29-project priority list to upgrade, repair and equip schools to a common baseline that would cost $75 million, just a little more than the amount budgeted for the high school, and the school board is going to have millions more left over – "a pretty significant amount," according to school board Chairman Alan Duncan.
The $75 million plan includes some one-off repair jobs that aren't related to the rest of the plan, such as repairing the historic 1930s rock gyms at Allen Jay Middle School in High Point and Summerfield Elementary School, and paving a parking lot next to the Grimsley High School football stadium that is deteriorating quickly because it is used as a transportation hub.
Most of the $75 million, however, would be used to do common repairs and upgrades for large groups of schools – $19 million for heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) improvements, $11 million for roofing, $8 million for windows and doors, $7 million for audio-video equipment and computers, $6 million for paving, $1.9 million for a voice over internet protocol (VoIP) communications system and the like.
At the retreat, Guilford County Schools gave the most detailed accounting to date of what has, and hasn't, been spent of the $200 million in school bonds approved by voters in 2000, the $300 million approved in 2003 and the $457 million approved in 2008 – which adds up to $957 million in bond authority.
The school board has also received money from the North Carolina Public School Building Capital Fund, state lottery funds, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners, and insurance collected after Eastern Guilford High School burned down in 2006.
According to the spreadsheet given to the school board members, there are 57 projects that haven't been closed out from the three rounds of bonds, and $756 million has been allocated to those projects from all sources. Of that money, $500 million has been spent and $39 million has been contracted for, but not spent. That's only $539 million explained.
According to Guilford County Schools, that leaves $216 million from the 57 projects "available for pending items or transfers." That includes two categories of money. The first is money the school board has on hand but will spend on projects that are still open. The second is leftover money.
According to Guilford County Cash and Debt Manager Clay Hicks, Guilford County Schools has $92 million in cash on hand for the construction projects and $130 million in authorized, but unsold bonds, or $221 million. Hicks said the difference between that and the $216 million listed by Guilford County Schools probably results from the fact that the school system hasn't checked with the county to see how much money it has left since Sept. 7, 2011.
So Guilford County Schools has $221 million, if all the bonds voters approved are sold. Hicks said he can't say how much of that money will be left over after all construction projects are finished, because, once bond money has been transferred to the school board for projects, the school board keeps track of whether projects are under or over budget.
The biggest question mark in the construction program is the $68.7 million the school board has not spent of the $72 million allocated to the airport area high school and land for a future middle school on the same property. The school board has been unsuccessful in finding 120 acres of land in western Guilford County for the two schools, so that $68.7 million has not been spent – and may never be spent, if school board member Ed Price has his way.
Price has questioned the need for the airport area high school, saying the money should be spent on fixing decayed county schools. He repeated the argument at the retreat, saying the school board needs to decide whether or not it needs a $72 million high school.
The spreadsheet provided to the school board was, in a way, useless because it didn't clearly separate projects that have substantial spending left from ones that are finished. A school in the first category is the $25 million southeast area elementary school, which was delayed for months because the school board couldn't find land that would satisfy residents of southeast Guilford County. Guilford County Schools has spent less than $2 million on the school, and has almost $23 million left to spend on it.
Guilford County Schools identified 10 projects that the Facilities Department is willing to close out. Guilford County Schools Executive Director of Facilities Management Robert Melton provided the amount left over from the 10 projects: $26.5 million, although school board members disputed that amount.
Duncan said, "This is opening up a hornet's nest."
It is, too. School board members have different theories about how leftover construction money should be spent. Often it is on schools in their districts. There is also a major philosophical rift on the board over whether money allocated to a school should be spent on that school, even if the original project is finished, or put in a big pile of money for the school board to spend later.
Duncan belongs to the "big pile of money" school. He told the other school board members that he gets looks when he says the money belongs to the school system, not the school. He said, "It's important that we think of it that way as well."
School board member Kris Cooke said there are "different ideologies" on the school board on the issue. She told Duncan, "We know you've said it, but that doesn't mean we all agree on it."
The school board then began dickering over how much of the $26.5 million to spend now, and how much to save for projects that may crop up.
That's where the Guilford County Schools $75 "priority list," or spending program, comes in. The $75 million figure can't be random. The school board recently came up with a master plan that calls for $1.2 billion in spending on school construction over the next decade, including new schools, replacement schools, school additions and, the biggest number, $937 million in school renovations....continued on page 2