Everyone complains about the weather but no one does anything about it – mostly because there’s not really anything one can do about it.
The Guilford County commissioners often complain about the way the Guilford County school system spends its money – which is, on the other hand, something school and county officials can do something about.
That’s the reason the Guilford County Board of Commissioners and school officials have agreed to form a joint committee to look into school space needs and use, as well as agreed to fund an extensive new facilities study to be conducted by a third party chosen in an upcoming bid process.
The new study, which will offer the school system strategies for the best use of its existing space, could also form the foundation of something else: A request by the school officials for the county commissioners to put a new school bond referendum on the ballot at some point. Guilford County voters passed a $457.3 million school bond referendum in May 2008 and the county’s finance officials are about to hand over the last of those funds to the schools.
According to Guilford County Cash and Debt Manager Clay Hicks, the coming school bond issue will raise $130.17 million, which constitutes the remainder on the May 2008 authorization. Of that, $20 million will go toward repaying a line of credit the county extended the schools last June to cover expenditures after the proceeds from the last bond issue were exhausted.
The Board of Commissioners met with some school board members and school administrators on Friday, Feb. 10 at the Board of Commissioners retreat and discussed the study, and the commissioners agreed to proceed with the joint effort. The school board is also expected to approve the move.
The county commissioners have expressed a desire to have more involvement with the school system’s construction and repair deliberations, which is where the new joint committee is expected to play a role. The Board of Commissioners has very little control over how the school board spends money but it does have a say over the amount of the lump sum the county gives the schools each year.
Guilford County Schools Chief of Staff Nora Carr stated this week that she believes a combination of considerations have propelled this collaboration. According to Carr, new Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras realized this was something that needed to be addressed when she arrived last summer.
“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.” Carr wrote in an email this week.
Carr added: “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.”
Carr pointed out that most of the county’s schools were built “when cassette tapes and portable radios were hot new technologies, students always sat in rows, classrooms only needed one outlet and energy conservation wasn’t on the radar screen.”
The school board had already directed school administrators to conduct a boundary optimization study – which should help the school efficiently distribute the county’s students throughout the available schools. The school board is now expected, in the new joint effort with the commissioners, to expand that study to cover a wide range of issues including building and playground space needs, repair priorities and other capital needs.
Chairman of Guilford County the Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips said the school study is part of a broader strategy to encourage a “different way of thinking when it comes to addressing school facilities.”
Phillips said Guilford County is coming to the end of the funds from the 2008 school bond referendum and the county wants to work closely with the school system – something that often hasn’t happened in the past.
“I think we need a better working relationship with regard to future construction projects.” Phillips said.
He added that one goal of the study should be to shed light on the best ways “to adequately maintain facilities and maximize educational opportunities with fewer dollars.”
According to Phillips, the commissioners and other county officials have been talking about doing this for a while and he said it helps that Contreras is a new school superintendent and there are some new school board members.
“With no disrespect meant to any former board members or former superintendents, one thing I’ve recognized about Dr. Contreras is her willingness to work with us and be openly engaged with us,” Phillips said. “That’s a welcome and refreshing shift.”
Phillips also said he truly believes that Contreras is a major asset to the county’s educational system. He said the commissioners are committed to working closely with education officials to enhance that system.
At the commissioners retreat on Feb. 10, Contreras, like Phillips, was very positive about the current working relationship between the school system and the county. She said she’d been in talks with Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing and the two had discussed a facilities study to be funded by both Guilford County and the school system.
“We wanted someone to come in with an expertise in school facility design and facility planning to help us look at whether or not, or in what order, we should be renovating schools and also looking at boundary optimization,” Contreras said.
She said the study would help answer the question, “Are we running schools in the most efficient way?”
The exact parameters of the study need to be agreed on before a request for bids is sent out.
Phillips said that, behind the scenes for years, county officials have discussed the need for a study of this sort.
“I think working together as a team could be advantageous,” he said.
In the near future the study may help the schools spend money more efficiently, but a little further down the line the findings could also be something that school officials point to when they request that another school bond be put on the ballot. Before former School Superintendent Mo Green stepped down, he gave the county commissioners a heads up on several occasions that a request for a new school bond referendum was on the horizon.
Even if the school board does request a new school bond referendum be put on the ballot in the next two or three years, it’s in no way clear that the Republican-majority Board of Commissioners would approve the move the way the Democratic-run board did nearly a decade ago.
Republican Guilford County Commissioner Alan Branson has been a critic of the way the county schools spend money since before he was elected commissioner in late 2012, and he said this week that it would be very hard for him to vote to approve putting a new school bond referendum on the ballot given the mass wave of construction over the past decade as well as the many questions he has about the wisdom of some school spending and its ways of prioritizing projects. Branson said Guilford County has cases where a school building is greatly over capacity and yet, nearby, another facility is way under capacity.
When Commissioner Hank Henning expressed similar concerns at the commissioners retreat, Contreras told Henning that was all the more reason to move forward with the study.
Branson said he often has a hard time figuring out the method the schools have been using to determine how bond money is spent. For instance, Branson said, he wonders why the school system has major classroom needs but keeps putting so much money into sports facilities.
“I’ve said all along we should be producing the scholar rather than the athlete,” Branson said. “When you’re busting at the seams and have double-wides stacked on top of each other for classrooms, but you are spending all this money on sports facilities – I don’t know if our priorities are in line.”
Branson also said that at times students are required to eat lunch very early in the day because school cafeteria space is extremely limited at some schools.
This week, Guilford County Board of Education Chairman Alan Duncan said it’s still early in the process but he said that at this point there are two areas where he hopes the study can provide some guidance. He said the study should help the school system maximize its use of existing space and it should offer an assessment of the schools’ needs for new facilities.
When Duncan was asked about the possibility of the school board requesting another bond referendum be placed on the ballot at some point in the coming years, Duncan said there’s no question the schools currently have very significant capital needs.
“Based on our most recent assessments, there are a half a billion [dollars] to a billion in facilities needs,” he said. “We know there’s very significant needs.”
He said the school system has been very frugal with the bond money approved by voters nine years ago, and he added that the recession helped in that effort due to the lower-than-anticipated construction costs. Duncan said that, since many of those projects came in under cost, the remaining bond money is now being spent on additional needs.
Each year, Guilford County gives the schools about 43 percent of the county budget to help cover the school system’s operating costs, and Duncan said that the amount given this year would be discussed in the coming month as the fiscal 2017-2018 school and county budgets are formed.
“There were some years during the recession when the county didn’t increase dollars and those years made it very difficult,” Duncan said.
In recent years the Republican-majority board has been increasing school spending – though never by as much as the schools request. Duncan said the school board is going to request what the system needs from the county.
“We will advocate for what the needs are,” Duncan said.
Enrollment in the Guilford County school system has remained relatively flat for the last five years. In 2012-2013, on day 20 into the school year, there were 72,585 students enrolled. In 2013-2014, that number was 72,388. In 2014-2015, there were 72,191 enrolled. In 2015-2016, it was 71,908, and 20 days into the current school year, 71,747 students were enrolled in the county’s school system.
Two factors that have led to that slight decline in student population is an increase in charter schools enrollment and relatively flat population growth for the county as a whole.