The Education Committee of the County Commission met with Director of Schools Patrick Cripps, County Mayor Tim Stribling, and members of the Board of Education last Wednesday to discuss options on how to move forward with a new school building plan.
A facilities study released late last year by Upland Design Group, the Board of Education’s architect, concluded that DeKalb West School was in the best condition and should remain as is; that Smithville Elementary needs to be replaced and repurposed; and that issues exist at Northside Elementary, DCHS, and DeKalb Middle Schools which should be addressed. Upland Design initially presented six options for the board to consider but later narrowed them down to three at the Board’s request.
During last Wednesday night’s meeting, Education Committee Chairman Anita Puckett asked Director Cripps and the School Board which option they were looking to recommend to the committee and county commission.
“I think it comes down to how much money you are going to give us,” said Director Cripps.
While the Board has not yet settled on a specific proposal, Cripps said there is a need for three schools.
“I am just one of eight, but as a board we haven’t decided exactly on what we want but I know what we need. We need three schools, a high school, middle school, and an elementary school,” said Director Cripps.
“How would you rank them according to the greatest need,” asked County Mayor Stribling
“The first one would be the elementary school in my opinion,” said school board member Doug Stephens.
“I don’t think we can have three school projects going on at the same time but I would like to see a plan that when we get the first one done then we immediately go into the next one followed by another one,” Stephens added.
Jonathan Norris, member of the education committee, said while he agreed that a new elementary school should be the first priority, the county commission and board of education should come to an understanding on a long range plan of building both an elementary school and a high school.
“Nobody is going to argue that Smithville Elementary is not the most immediate need that should be addressed first but then the second one that comes to mind is the high school. Those two schools are always in everybody’s conversation. But if we build another elementary school like we did Northside (by issuing a 30 year bond) our high school will be 86 years old before we can get another bond. We can’t just build one every 25 years. To me that is not a good plan,” he said.
Norris suggested that the school board consider asking the county to commit to building a new elementary school (pre-K through 2nd grade next to Northside Elementary on 17 acres the school district already owns ) by securing a 12 year note. Norris said a short term note is more appealing than a 30 year bond and it will allow the county and school board to move forward on building a new high school within 10 to 12 years after the Board of Education purchases a suitable site. According to Norris, the debt on Northside Elementary will be paid off by next year and funds for that project could be re-directed to the construction of a new elementary school. Still, Norris cautioned that the county would need to create a new revenue stream to help pay for the project.
“If we can do an elementary school at around $19.5 million and I am just talking structure and furniture, not land acquisition, we have $470,000 that will free up next year on the Northside bond and in six years we will free up another $635,000 from the county complex (when that debt is paid off) but there still needs to be a new $1.3 million revenue stream,” said Norris.
“My thought is to do this (elementary school) on a 12 year note and not a 30 year bond because a note can be gotten at a lower interest rate around 2.3% versus a bond at 4%. It could feasibly be paid off in 10 years and then after that we can issue a 30 year bond for a high school,” he continued.
Norris said the county could not afford to build both a high school and elementary school at the same time with a 30 year bond issue.
“There is no way we can borrow more than $45 million in a 30 year bond issue without downgrading the bond rating of the county. That is not fiscally smart because it would mean nothing else could happen in terms of growth or building to meet county needs for the next 30 years but using a short term note first and a bond later we could do it. It is conservatively the right way to go about it because it doesn’t break the bank and it helps our county,” said Norris.
Should the current county commission and board of education agree on such a long range plan, could future commissions and school boards be held to the commitments made by their predecessors?
“As a commission, we can’t lock another commission in,” said Norris.
“But If there is a land purchase (for a new high school), you begin to constrain how far a new commission can go 12 years down the road if you’ve made an initial investment in the land,” replied Jack Barton, member of the education committee.
“That’s why I say if we can get a plan as to what we are going to do and say we are going to build an elementary school and the board of education will purchase land for the high school and then as soon as this (elementary school) pays off within 10-12 years we will start a high school I think you stand a better shot of making that plan a realization,” added Norris.
Should the plan be approved, Norris urged the school board to get started on finding property for a new high school.
“If the county can find a way to generate the funds for the elementary school, the school board needs to find a way to purchase land for the high school even though it is ten to twelve years away,” he said.
County Mayor Stribling added that the Tennessee Department of Transportation must also be consulted on the location of any new school.
“Whatever DeKalb County decides to do as to where a new school is going we have to get TDOT involved on the front end because a traffic study will have to be done to determine the impact to state roads,” he said.