No one enjoys getting bills in the mail no matter what the size, but when a bill shows up asking for payment of $1.5 billion, it raises the consternation to a new level.
Technically, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners weren’t presented with a $1.5 billion “bill” on Thursday, Jan. 31 when they heard the results of a new school facilities study that found the Guilford County school system needed just under $1.5 billion in new construction, repair and associated projects – however, much of the responsibility for school capital needs falls on Guilford County government. Now that the price tag has been unveiled, school officials, parents and others are eager to see the reaction of the Guilford County commissioners.
Commissioner Jeff Phillips, who’s a financial planner by day and is the county’s go-to commissioner on most budget matters, said the day after the big reveal that it was really a starting point rather than an ending point. Phillips said there’s a long way to go before this raw information is turned into a viable funding proposal.
“Obviously, it’s going to be a work in progress,” Phillips said.
The $1 million study from Tallahassee-based MGT Consulting Group calls for the facilities work to come in four phases, and Phillips said he was surprised to see that the first phase was so “front-loaded.”
“Their recommendations call for two-thirds of it in Phase 1,” Phillips said.
He added that all of the county commissioners certainly want to see capable well-functioning schools but anyone who thinks the county can just conjure up $1.5 billion overnight and hand it over is operating under a misconception since the county “does not have an unlimited capacity to pay.”
Phillips also said that, while the information in the report is certainly valuable, he thinks some considerations may have been missed by the school consultants. Phillips told the representatives of MGT Consulting at the Jan. 31 meeting that there were some aspects of the school system that he thought may have been overlooked – however, he added that he wasn’t being critical and wasn’t saying those considerations should have fallen under the scope of the consultants’ work.
“There is clearly much more work to be done,” he said. “I think there are some nuances that may not have been considered as well as I might have liked.”
Phillips said Guilford County’s unique population distribution and the fact that it has two large cities when almost all other counties in the state only have one, may have not been fully appreciated when it came to some of the recommended school closures and related suggestions.
Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Alan Branson is known for saying colorfully exactly what is on his mind and that proved true in this case as well. At the Jan. 31 meeting, he said, “The number is definitely astronomical, and I knew it would be,” and Branson added later that it was probably “mind-boggling to every single person sitting in the room.”
He said Guilford County has to find some new ways of financing school construction because there’s no way it can afford school capital needs at this scale in a traditional manner. Recently, Branson and Board of Education Member Pat Tillman have been outspoken about the need for the county and the school system to break with the past and start funding schools under new financing models in order to make school construction more affordable. Just last year, Guilford County finished issuing the last of $457 million in school bonds that county voters approved in May 2008.
“I think we are going to have to get creative if we are talking about building this number of schools from the tax base with our projected growth,” Branson said. “If we’re going to provide adequate schools throughout Guilford County – middle, high school and elementary – then we are going to have to find new ways to do it.”
Branson said that means using every strategy possible to bring down the operating and construction costs of new schools. He said that may mean the use of green energy grants and state and federal tax grants that might be applicable if, say, a non-profit entity builds school facilities and leases them back to Guilford County on a lease-to-own plan.
While most commissioners want to take a breath and assess the nature of the plan, some commissioners are now talking about a need to move forward quickly, at least in certain areas. Commissioner Carolyn Coleman, for instance, said there are clearly some priorities where action needs to be taken soon. To take one example, she said, it’s important to quickly address the needs of the students who were displaced when three Greensboro schools were hit by a tornado in April 2018.
“We have constituents that are on our backs,” Coleman said.