Sometimes the Guilford County commissioners get treated like VIPs, but recently some of them have clearly felt like second-class citizens when it comes to a major new school facilities study.
Several commissioners said that, even though Guilford County paid for half of the study from Tallahassee-based MGT Consulting Group, the county commissioners haven’t been granted the same access to the results as school officials.
The county commissioners have discussed the study twice this month – at a Thursday, Oct. 4 work session and, with some school board members and school staff, at an early morning joint committee meeting on Thursday, Oct. 11.
The new study, which is still in draft form, is an extremely important one. It will help determine things like which schools get more funding for repairs, whether a school takes more or fewer students and how much money the schools ask voters for in a future school bond referendum.
At the Oct. 11 joint committee meeting, the school board and county commissioners were given a lot of information and the commissioners saw a draft of study results, but they were expecting the information over a month earlier – and several commissioners said school system officials had access to it before the commissioners did.
“It’s been a hot button topic for the last few weeks,” Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Alan Branson said. “We were supposed to hear something back earlier.”
Commissioner Hank Henning and some other commissioners have stated concerns that the school board and school staff might try to “spin” the results, so the commissioners wanted access to everything school officials had. At the Oct. 4 work session, Henning expressed his concerns in no uncertain terms.
“I’ve had citizens ask me about that and, if I understand, the school system has access to the study – I guess on their server; they don’t have a hard copy because it’s so big. I’m a little bit amazed to understand that we don’t have access to it. We’re 50 percent in on this thing.”
Henning asked county staff to get the commissioners the credentials needed to give them the same access as school officials. He said he didn’t want to propose “a conspiracy theory,” but he added: “It almost feels like we we’re waiting on them to go through it to prepare it to present to us. I think we need to have equal access to it. There are commissioners on this board who want to go look at it.”
The study provides in-depth information about the school’s infrastructure and capital assets including building utilization rates and the needs of every school. The commissioners are extremely interested in the results because they know that information will be used as the basis for a coming request from the school system for hundreds of millions of dollars in county funds for school system repair and construction. The school system has now spent the more than half a billion dollars in bond fund money approved by county voters in 2008, and now they want more. But before any new school bond referendum is put on the ballot, the commissioners must approve the referendum and the amount.
At that Oct. 4 work session, Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne told Henning that it was his understanding that there was no final document at that time. Payne said it would be made clear to the school system attorney that commissioners should get a copy as soon as the study is in final form.
“Let me be more blunt,” Henning responded to Payne. “Here’s the problem. The school staff is going though it and trying to prepare it, but we need the raw data. I’m not interested in having the school staff – no disrespect to them – go through it and prepare it. I’m being even more blunt: I’m not concerned with whatever their staff is doing to prepare this. If they have access to the raw data, we need access. So I completely disagree with what you are saying.”
For years, the commissioners have had questions about the way the school board conducts its business – they have asked questions such as why some schools are overcrowded while other schools just down the road are nowhere near capacity.
Henning said at the work session that school officials would not stand idly by if the county got the results first and school officials were left out of the loop.
“They wouldn’t tolerate that for a second and I wouldn’t blame them,” Henning said.
Commissioner Kay Cashion said at the work session that she “couldn’t agree more” with Henning. She said the county commissioners have citizens asking them questions about this and they needed to be provided the same information as school officials.
After that Oct. 4 discussion, the commissioners did finally get to see a “rough draft” of the findings – on Thursday morning, Oct. 11 when the joint committee met in the Blue Room of the Old Guilford County Court House.
Commissioner Jeff Philips said after that meeting that he felt the lines of communication between the county and the school system were now opening up well.
“I feel like we’re generally on the right track,” he said. “We’re trying to get together and get feedback from the study and not let politics and pet projects get in the way.”
Phillips said he will be very interested in the amount of money school officials ask for in the upcoming school bond.
There have been hints in recent years that school officials could ask for over a billion dollars. The schools might want that much but the current Republican majority Board of Commissioners is concerned about the tax rate. The board has provided the schools with increases in funding every year since the Republicans took control six years ago, but a gigantic new school bond might be a hard pill for them to swallow since they are so anti-tax increase.
Phillips said this week, “My position is the same as it has been since I first got here – I will do everything in my power to avoid a tax increase.”
The Republican-led board has done that successfully since winning the majority of the board in 2012 – in fact, they have consistently brought taxes down – but, now, with the cost of many key county projects coming in millions more than anticipated and the school system on the verge of asking for hundreds of millions more, that no-tax-increase effort is becoming more of a challenge each year.