Time to Get Back on Track
The snow covered ground and frigid temperatures may not be the only thing getting a frosty reception this week. It is back to business as usual for the County Commission and it should be an interesting start to the new calendar year. The County Budget Committee closed out 2016 with a joint meeting of their committee and the School Board. To say that the atmosphere was a little strained would be much like saying that the temperatures this weekend were a little chilly. There were lots of motions on the part of the School Board and a few on the part of the Budget Committee but in the end, nothing-absolutely nothing-came out of that meeting.
For those that have not been following the play by play of the White Pine School Renovation and Addition Funding Saga, here it is in a nutshell. The County Commission put up one million dollars and the School Board matched that one million with a million of their own making a total of two million dollars. The money was for the renovation and additions at White Pine School and was to pay for a kitchen/cafeteria renovation, a band room and eight additional classrooms. The School Board met with architects and all determined that they could do the requested work for a total of two million dollars. The one they hired came back with drawings that were far outside the scope of the original project but the Department of Education bought the drawings anyway, for an increased price. Then the architects determined that they could not provide the requested kitchen/cafeteria, band room and eight classrooms for the original amount and, instead, submitted a plan that cut the band room and half the classrooms making those “alternates” that would cost, according to the architects, another eight hundred thousand dollars. The architects delayed signing the contract for the project for several months, citing issues with the contract negotiation. By the time they did sign the contract, the School Board had received good news. They had rolled enough into their fund balance to cover the additional eight hundred thousand needed to fund the “alternatives” and pay for White Pine School Project as it had originally been planned-kitchen/cafeteria, band room and eight classrooms.
It should have been a walk in the park. The plan was there, the money was there, and finally the contract was there. Everything should have been a “go” and the project that should have started several months before should have finally been off the ground. But, no. Next came the disturbing news that the project was going to cost not two million dollars, not two million eight hundred thousand dollars, but instead around the three and a half million dollar range and that included some big cuts like professional roofing. For their two million eight hundred thousand dollars the School Board would only get the cafeteria/kitchen and four classrooms. The cost increase did not sit well with the Jefferson County Commission. After all, they were partnering in the project and answerable to the tax payers. They requested that the School Board ask their architect or another of the architects that were interviewed for the project to take another look at the design and make some adjustments. The School Board answered their request with a motion to take the funding that had been allocated for other capital projects at other schools, around $646,000 plus additional funds taken from the project to repair the JCHS Baseball Stadium, and put the total amount toward the White Pine School Project.
The Budget Committee didn’t allow the movement of the funds and, instead, requested that the School Board accept an offer to release a little over nine hundred thousand in funds, with half from the County allocation and half from the School Board allocation, to fund the cafeteria/kitchen part of the project to alleviate the pressure on the teachers, staff and students at White Pine. The Budget Committee stressed that the offer did not stop the School Board from presenting their request to move all the previously designated capital projects funds to the White Pine Project, it was just an avenue to get the cafeteria/kitchen project moving while the kids were out of school. The School Board turned down the offer and decided to wait it out until the full County Commission meets, which they do this week for Work Session and next week for a voting meeting.
I know that I have written about this situation a couple of times but it deserves repeating. I have heard through the grape vine that some parents and students may be at the County Commission meeting to make their opinions known. My hope is that they have good information. If it was my child that returned to school last week with no progress on the cafeteria/kitchen I would certainly be attending a meeting. It just wouldn’t be a County Commission meeting. I would be front and center asking the School Board why they decided to turn down an offer that was in the best interest of White Pine School. There was no downside to the offer to go ahead and start the kitchen/cafeteria project. If the County Commission decided to approve the request for the capital projects funding being redirected to the White Pine School Project, it would have simply meant that the cafeteria/kitchen got a little head start during the holiday. If they do not approve the sift of money then it is a way to get something done while the scope and funding for the rest of the project are being worked out. No one on the School Board or the County Commission believes that the White Pine Renovation and Addition Project will end with the cafeteria/kitchen.
It is a shame that the kids are sitting in such disarray and it is a shame that so much time has been wasted. The School Board has enough money, with the County contribution, for the cafeteria/kitchen and four classrooms. White Pine deserves better than a half baked project and the tax payers deserve better than the financial shell game that the architect has been playing. If it were your money, wouldn’t you get a second opinion? Well, it is your money.
This is a problem that never should have been and a situation that never should have happened. It was born of the County Commission and the School Board trying to do the right thing for the students and it has become the beast that ate Manhattan. We should all be appalled at firms that come to our County and try to take advantage of our people. It has happened before and it will continue to happen until we draw the line in the sand and let good judgment, not desperation, guide our decisions. It doesn’t matter who is driving this train, it has derailed and it is time to get it back on track. We need to employ a little common sense to the problem and stop thinking that every snake oil salesman from the city has the answer. We should have learned our lesson by now.