Everyone always says, “You have to spend money to make money,” but a joint initiative now underway between the Guilford County Board of Education and the Guilford County Board of Commissioners is based on the idea that you have to spend money to save money.
The two boards have agreed to spend nearly $900,000 jointly – about $450,000 each – to assess school space and building needs for the next decade, study the condition of school buildings and find strategies – including potential redistricting moves – that will optimize current school space. The school board members and county commissioners hope that spending the $900,000 in 2018 can save the school system tens of millions in construction and operational costs in the coming decade.
Guilford County and the school system are hiring Tallahassee-based MGT Consulting Group to design and implement the wide-ranging school facilities study that’s meant to optimize current space and plan for future needs.
The Guilford County Board of Commissioners is expected to formally approve the expenditure for the study on Thursday, Jan. 18, with the school board doing the same at its Thursday, Jan. 25 meeting.
The new study is supposed to provide an extensive review of the current availability and use of school facilities. In addition to physical site review and assessment of building conditions, MGT Consulting Group will meet with and question staff, review existing school policies that affect facilities planning and look at the school system’s technology needs in light of its curriculum goals.
The study is considered extremely important since it’s likely to influence some of the most heated decisions that the Guilford County school board deals with – redistricting.
One reason the county commissioners are paying half the cost of what will be a study devoted to school buildings is that, each year, Guilford County spends about 45 percent of its budget on school costs – to fund school operations and to pay back debt on school buildings. So the commissioners are hoping this study will help keep future costs down.
The commissioners also see the comprehensive study as a way to get answers to questions they’ve had for years regarding how the school system has been spending its money. In the past, the schools have tried to explain the choices they’ve made and why they’ve made them, but several commissioners said this week that it would be beneficial to have an objective, highly trained third party such as MGT Consulting, weigh in on those questions and bring back answers.
The new project, which has the 50-cent name of School Assignment Optimization Plan and Comprehensive Facility Condition Assessment, is expected to take about six months to complete, and in the end, school officials say, Guilford County and the school system will have a very clear picture of current space and future needs, as well as a coherent strategy for the best way to meet those needs.
Over the years, some commissioners have been openly critical of situations where, they say, there are some severely overcrowded schools right down the road from other schools that are vastly underutilized. Yet, commissioners say, the school board is always reluctant to reassign students from crowded schools to the underused ones.
One answer to that question is that redrawing district lines often leads to extremely upset parents and students. The new study will in the end provide the school system with an outside assessment of school population issues and perhaps allow the school board to make those moves while facing less criticism than they would otherwise.
Another purpose of the expensive new study might be to provide the school system with a justification to make a request for a giant new school bond referendum. Guilford County’s citizens approved $457 million in school bond money in May 2008; however, that money is now nearly gone. According to Guilford County Cash and Debt Manager Clay Hicks, all of those 2008 referendum school bonds have now been issued. A spring 2017 bond issue for Guilford County Schools raised just over $130 million and currently the unexpended portion of that final issue amounts to $24.8 million.
Guilford County Board of Education Chairman Alan Duncan and other school officials haven’t been shy about saying that, in the not too distant future, the school system will seek hundreds of millions more for future growth and maintenance projects. The new joint space study won’t eliminate that need, school officials say, but it should help keep costs down by making sure future funds are spent wisely and are directed where they need to be.
School officials and county commissioners have met three times in the past two months to work out the details. Guilford County Commissioner Jeff Phillips, who serves on the joint committee that’s helping design and negotiate the study’s terms, said he believes that, with school costs being such a high percentage of the county’s budget each year, it makes a lot of sense for the two bodies to work together on a major facilities study of this kind.
Phillips said it will be a welcome break from past years when the schools come to the county with various requests and a long list of facilities needs – and the commissioners really have no clear idea which ones are the most pressing, or how much emphasis to put on this request or that request.
In some past years, Guilford County and the schools, when it comes to facilities expenditures, have had an almost adversarial relationship rather than one of cooperation. Phillips said he wants to see the county have a much closer relationship with the school system on this issue.
“I want us to be equal partners in this,” Phillips said. “I think we’re headed to a much more collaborative process.”
Phillips added that the lines of communication between the Guilford County commissioners and the school board and school staff have been much better since Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras was hired for that job in mid-2016.
“I think Dr. Contreras has been very good about helping their board and staff work better with our board and staff,” Phillips said. “I give her credit for helping create a different atmosphere.”
County and school system officials say there will be other benefits that come with the comprehensive study as well. For instance, they say, having new up-to-date schematics of all school buildings will increase student and staff safety if there’s a fire, bomb threat, active shooter or a terrorist event at a county school. If the school system wasn’t getting up-to-date drawings from the new facilities study, area emergency services officials would want those done anyway in the next few years in the name of school safety.
Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Alan Branson said he’s optimistic that the study may help Emergency Services and the Sheriff’s Department, along with other first responders. Over the years, the schools have added buildings and made other changes to campuses. In many places the current drawings and, in some cases maps, are way out of date.
Guilford County Budget Director Mike Halford said he’s spoken with an emergency services and with fire officials about the situation.
“They like to have those updated obviously whenever there are any changes in those facilities,” Halford said.
Guilford County Emergency Services Director Jim Albright said, “We would have to pay for that eventually so it’s kind of nice it’s blended in to one study.”
Contreras said even relatively new school facilities need to be looked at closely.
“They may be new and they may be in good condition,” the school superintendent said, “but without a review of that, we are at risk of just using the same floor plans to create the same space that is not a 21st century learning facility. Also, it’s safety and security.”
Contreras said it’s important to know more about the school’s administrative buildings in addition to the building’s that have classrooms.
“When I think about the administrative buildings, I think about efficiencies, and efficiency translates to dollars going to students,” she said.
She said the questions that need answers go beyond those of the physical condition of school buildings to questions of function.
“Does it allow us to do work in the most efficient way so that additional dollars could go to students?” Contreras asked. “I think we ought to be considering how efficiency translates to money, which translates to materials supplies and programs for our students.”
Over the course of the talks, the commissioners and school board members on the joint committee have brought the initial price down from about $1.2 million without substantially reducing the scope of the work, and they’ve also gotten commitments for an increase in Minority and Women Business Enterprise (MWBE) participation.
Commissioner Carolyn Coleman, who serves on the joint committee overseeing the study, said she had concerns that there is a distinct lack of minority participation in the study and she raised that point several times at committee meetings in December and January where the study was discussed. It probably didn’t help that the main presentation made to the joint committee was handled by three white men.
Coleman said this week that she was pleased the consultants committed to increasing those numbers after she raised the issue.
“I think they have brought that number up to 13 percent,” she said. “I’m happy about that.”
In one meeting in early January, a good portion of the time was spent in closed session where the school officials and commissioners worked out the contract details. One reason under North Carolina law to hold a closed session is to negotiate the “the price and other material terms of a contract.”