January 17, 2013
Now that the long, painful history of the Guilford County Board of Education's proposed airport area high school is over, Guilford County Schools
needs a politically salable list of school renovations and expansions to convince the Guilford County Board of Commissioners to sell the $71.5 million in school bonds intended for the high school.
Guilford County voters approved $457 million in school bonds in May 2008, including $72 million for the airport area high school. The school board has spent $500,000 unsuccessfully searching for land for the airport area high school and a future middle school.
The school board, after failing to buy two sites for that high school, and facing complaints that many of its older schools badly need renovations, on Jan. 8 voted 8 to 3 to scrap the plan to build the airport area school, which was largely intended to relieve crowding at Northwest Guilford High School. The same vote canceled plans to buy land for the proposed high school and middle school.
That the school board voted to kill the airport area high school was unsurprising. The project had been dead on its feet for months. Northwest is the best-performing large high school in Guilford County. It's crowded, but still one of the most desirable schools in the county.
The only surprises were that school board Chairman Alan Duncan, the most vocal supporter of the airport area school, voted against building it – and that Guilford County Schools
administrators, who must have known the votes weren't there, nonetheless recommended buying land for it in some new, unspecified place in the area.
With the airport area high school dead, the school board defaulted to a $75 million list of maintenance and equipment projects presented by the Guilford County Schools
Facilities Department at the school board's Sept. 22, 2012 retreat.
The Facilities Department list, however, would spend most of the $75 million on roofing, paving, repairs and equipment – $19 million for heating and air-conditioning 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.
That list doesn't answer the complaints that, as much as the lack of land, killed the airport area high school – that the school board should renovate some of its old schools before building a new one. Supporters of High Point Central High School have been particularly vocal.
At a series of meetings at High Point Central, parents complained strongly that High Point Central, which has more maintenance and space problems than most schools, was not on the Facilities Department list.
High Point Central parents said Central's library has room for only a tiny fraction of the school's 1,424 students; the cafeteria, which was completely renovated in 1993, is so tiny that most students can't eat there and are forced to bring food or leave campus to get lunch; and the bathrooms in the main building are virtually unusable.
High Point Central supporters have called for $40 million to be spent renovating Central. That isn't going to happen. The school board has the $71.5 million left over from the airport area high school, and will have millions more left over from other projects on the bond program, the costs of which were estimated during an expensive economy but which were built in the once-in-a-lifetime buyers market after the 2008 economic crash. The total is likely to be upward of $100 million, perhaps above $130 million.
That's a lot of money – but not enough to give any one school $40 million. The school bonds that would have funded the airport area high school have not yet been issued by Guilford County – and if they are to be issued, would have to be approved by the Guilford County Board of Commissioners. It's not yet certain that the commissioners will approve the school bonds, but getting them to do so would probably require spreading the money around the districts of the eight commissioners.
The school board has to deal with two new factors in selling the school bonds: a new, fiscally conservative 5-to-4 Republican majority on the Board of Commissioners and a Guilford County that is $1.1 billion in debt, if the school bonds are included. The payments on that debt are expected to increase for the next several years. The commissioners are also facing an apparent $41 million gap between spending and revenue for the 2013-2014 fiscal year, and $106 million of that spending is estimated to be debt service.
Under those circumstances, the Board of Commissioners may not want to issue the $71.5 million in school bonds intended for the airport area high school if the proceeds are going to other uses, or at least may not want to issue them this year. To get the commissioners to issue the school bonds, the school board will probably have to divide the spoils.
The commissioners discussed the school bonds briefly at their Thursday, Jan. 10 retreat, but made no decision on whether or not to issue them. The commissioners could attribute the school bonds to the previous Board of Commissioners and the school board and move on, or the new Republican majority could dig in its heels and refuse to increase the county's debt load.
The computers and other equipment are on the Facilities Department's priority list as part of Guilford County School Superintendent Mo Green's strategic plan for the school system, which calls for all schools to have a standard baseline of equipment. That's needed – some schools have whiz-bang gee-gaws and others are using 1950s equipment – but computer equipment, which depreciates in value faster than anything on the planet, probably isn't what supporters of individual schools want most, or what the commissioners will expect from the school board. New computers aren't much use in crumbling schools with leaky roofs.
In 2011, Guilford County Schools
released a $1.24 billion capital improvement plan for the school system that covers the next 10 years. The plan includes $85 million in new schools, $112 million in replacement schools, $104 million in school additions and $937 million in renovations.
In that plan, the Facilities Department wrote that, "given that at the present time no funding source has been identified to complete the $1.24 billion in needs," the capital improvements should be tackled in two phases: maintenance and technology first, and new schools, replacement schools and renovations and additions last.
That's the opposite of what supporters of High Point Central, Northwest and other schools are asking for. They want renovations and additions first, along with critical maintenance such as the new roofs needed by some schools, including Bluford Elementary. New computers are not high on parents' lists, and probably not on the commissioners'. If Guilford County Schools
is going to spend the $71.5 million intended for the airport area high school, the commissioners will probably expect additions and renovations....continued on page 2