A school facilities and district line study sounds like the most boring thing in the world, so it’s a wonder that the new joint Guilford County Board of Education and Guilford County Board of Commissioners school study has become fascinating even before it’s begun.
To name just a few of many highlights, consider these: (1) Some county commissioners took issue with the makeup of the school committee overseeing the study. (2) Conversely, some school board members took issue with the makeup of the commissioners committee overseeing the study. (3) The joint study started out last year with the county commissioners talking about a study with an estimated price tag of $600,000 – and now that price is about $1 million and climbing.
And, again, that’s all before the study has even started.
Earlier this month, the joint committee of county commissioners and school board members met to wade through proposals, and the group narrowed the field down to four companies that are still in the race to tackle the giant system-wide study. The exact parameters of the study haven’t been finalized, but it’s expected to be a comprehensive and independent look at school facilities needs as well as an assessment of the best way for the system to draw school district lines. The technical language being used is “Comprehensive Facility Condition Assessment (FCA)” and “School Assignment Optimization Plan (SOP).”
According to the schools’ information, the study will ideally “document the present condition of school and administrative facilities; determine whether existing facilities, attendance boundaries and school program locations, functionally meet the needs of the district; and prioritize capital improvement and school assignment modifications necessary to utilize more effectively the district’s facilities in support of academic instruction.”
Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing said this week that he expects the study to save the county money in the end by bringing about a more efficient use of school dollars. The county commissioners are also hopeful that the study will more than pay for itself in the end.
On Thursday, June 15, the Board of Commissioners approved a new county budget with total school funding making up nearly half of that budget – so the commissioners have an intense interest in seeing the school system become more efficient. Each year Guilford County helps pay school operating costs, provides money for debt repayment on school bonds and also helps fund building maintenance and repairs.
Guilford County Schools has 340 school and administrative buildings across the county with over 12 million square feet of space. In fiscal 2015-2016, the system had more than 30,000 completed work orders for those structures. The school buildings have an average age of 51 years. The system has about 73,300 pre-K through 12th grade students, and roughly 10,000 full- and part-time employees.
When Guilford County Schools Chief of Staff Nora Carr was asked about the wide range of prices being bandied about among county officials, she wrote in an email that school officials had “heard a wide range of estimates as well,” and she stated that responses to the request for qualifications sent out should bring a more accurate picture of the costs.
According to Carr, it’s hard to get a good cost estimate by looking at similar studies in other school systems.
“School districts vary so much, it’s hard to compare,” Carr wrote. “Given the scope of this project, the superintendent [Sharon Contreras] estimated/shared previously with [the Board of Commissioners and the school board] that it could cost between $700,000 to more than $1 million. We’ll have to adjust our budgets as needed. I think the idea is to share costs but details are still being worked out.”
Guilford County included $300,000 in its new budget. That was initially discussed as enough to fund half of the study’s cost, with an impression that the school system, which is driving the project, would fund the other half. However, $300,000 is half of $600,000 – not half of $1 million or $1.2 million.
Carr said school officials “anticipate having similar funds available in our budget, and the source and exact amount may depend on the timing and cost, and the final allocations we receive from our funding bodies.”
According to Carr, the cost will depend on what the study entails.
“If the final scope includes both components as outlined,” Carr wrote, “the project would likely exceed $1 million, given the size of the district, number and age of facilities/schools and systems … size of the county, and complexity of issues involved.”
School officials want an objective assessment in writing that they can point to when requesting more money from the county or from voters in future bond referendums.
At a recent county budget work session, when Guilford County Budget Director Mike Halford told the county commissioners that school officials saw school needs approaching $900 million for capital projects (in addition to $180 million for Guilford County Technical Community College, for a combined total of well over $1 billion), Guilford County Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen was so wide-eyed and gasped so loudly that Halford asked Thigpen if he had a comment.
Thigpen said a new revenue producing walk-in passport service by his office will not cover those costs.
“Well, my part-time passport position request will bring in some new county money, but I don’t think it will quite cover that amount,” Thigpen said. “Maybe I’ll need to request a full-time position and rethink my marketing strategy.”
But the deeds office isn’t going to come up with that kind of money – the taxpayers will have to do that. Halford said this week that, while the school board hasn’t had a new capital needs conversation yet, and perhaps the need for a bond referendum, with the commissioners, that topic is in the air.
“The Board of Education has not brought that up,” Halford said, “but that’s one thing you hear me mentioning.”
As budget director, it is his job to anticipate major expenditures years in advance.
Halford said that the state requires school systems to do a periodic assessment of their facilities with respect to age, size, square footage per student and other criteria. He said Guilford County Schools conducted its latest assessment last year. The new study would be a much more comprehensive and detailed version of that.
In addition to emphasizing school facilities needs, the new study should also provide school officials backing with an objective third-party document that explains why highly unpopular redistricting moves need to take place. It may help quell some of the dissatisfaction that will no doubt come with a major countywide redistricting.
Commissioner Hank Henning said he believes a lot of the school system’s redistricting problems could be handled with common sense rather than a million dollar study. He said that one school district he knows looks “like a gerrymandered congressional district” and added that district lines across the county often make no sense as well.
Henning also said he hopes the study can provide some insight about why school system costs keep rising despite so many people choosing charter schools.
“The schools have flatlined for years,” Henning said of the student population in the county’s school system. “They’ve flatlined and we have been giving them more money. I don’t know why they’ve been stretched so thin. To this day, I’m not sure they’ve ever asked the question: Why are they leaving us?”
Henning said he was very frustrated with the fact that school board member Wes Cashwell hadn’t been placed on the joint study committee. Henning said Cashwell, a contractor who owns a construction firm, had done an excellent job of questioning school officials about construction projects and Cashwell was by far the most equipped to oversee a facilities study.
“I have a hard time taking it seriously when they don’t put someone like Wes Cashwell on there,” Henning said this week.
(School Board Chairman Alan Duncan has named Cashwell as an alternate on the school study committee.)
Henning said the schools appeared to have made their choices about who was on the committee for the important study based on things like seniority, rather than who is most qualified.
“If this all comes down to, ‘so-and-so has been on the board the longest,’ well, what does that matter?” Henning said.
He used an example referring to Guilford County Commissioner Alan Perdue, who served for decades as the county Emergency Services director before retiring from that job and being elected county commissioner.
“If we’re looking at buying ambulances, and we say to Alan Perdue, ‘Well, you’re the most junior person on the board; we don’t really need your opinion,’ the community would laugh us out of office it would be such a ridiculous statement.”
Cashwell said he was pleased to be an alternate on the committee and said this is an extremely important endeavor that he hopes the two boards can work together well on.
“This is an historic joint endeavor and a lot of information will be gained,” Cashwell said.
Guilford County voters approved $457 million in school bond referendums in May 2008. After nearly a decade, Guilford County just issued the last $130 million of those bonds and that money will be used up soon and now everyone is waiting to see how much new money the schools will request from voters.
Earlier in the year, Duncan told the Rhino Times, “Based on our most recent assessments, there are a half a billion [dollars] to a billion in facilities needs. We know there’s very significant needs.”
Also, before former School Superintendent Mo Green stepped down in late 2015, Green gave the county commissioners a heads up on several occasions that a request for a new school bond referendum was on the horizon.
Guilford County school board member Byron Gladden isn’t shy at all when it comes to talking about school needs or his hope that the new study will bring about more school funding in the end.
“The superintendent and her team brought this to the joint committee and said we need to look at infrastructure,” Gladden said.
He said repairs that have been needed for years haven’t happened and added that a lot of schools built in the ’50s and ’60s aren’t compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
“There are some places in our schools that disabled children can’t go,” he said, “and some of our facilities and some of our structures we really can’t ‘patch.’”
He said the study should help the schools get support to raise the needed funds.
“This will be something that school officials can point to to justify the needs,” Gladden said. “I think a detailed analysis by an independent company will bring awareness. It’s a new set of eyes but it also gives the schools support and validation that we’re credible – or more credible. We own the most property of any entity in Guilford County.”
Gladden said that even a large bond referendum that met all the schools’ current needs wouldn’t be enough.
“A bond does not address the long term issues,” he said. “A bond will help us look at a lot of limited needs, but if we pass a bond, 20 years from now we will be right back in the same spot. We need a steady stream of money to address issues as they come in.”
He said that is where a sales tax increase dedicated to school funding could come in.
He also said he wholeheartedly agrees with many commissioners who say there is a need for school redistricting in Guilford County.
“Redistricting is something that has been pushed back and pushed back,” he said. “Can we do better? Absolutely?”
Gladden said it’s the reason he and other school officials often spend two hours before school board meetings trying to rule on student assignment requests. He said they will probably will be doing that all summer.
Gladden said he’s very pleased with the diversity of the school board members on the committee. He said that in terms of gender, race and political party, every box is checked.
“I will give credit to our Chairman Alan Duncan,” Gladden said. “He clearly put some thought into it as far as equity and diversity.”
Gladden said that, on the other side of the coin, at first Guilford County didn’t have any diversity on its side of the committee since it was all white men. After hearing those concerns from school board members – as well as some county commissioners – the county added Commissioner Carolyn Coleman to the joint committee.
Schools officials started talking about the need for the massive study after Contreras arrived last year and named that as a priority.
Carr wrote in an email that facility concerns have been a “consistent theme voiced by many people the superintendent has met with since joining us in August, including school board members, county officials, parents, teachers, etc.”
At that time, the school board had already directed school administrators to conduct a boundary optimization study to improve efficiency and distribute the county’s students throughout the school system in a more rational way.
Carr also stated that having “an independent firm with expertise in school facilities conduct a comprehensive study could help move us forward by providing the superintendent, school board and county with a better baseline for future planning.”