Another School Building Project? – Scratching My Head

I have spent the last few months wondering when or if things would ever get back to normal. Perhaps the request for two new schools is the first step toward that goal. After all, can you remember a time in the past decade or so that a school building plan was not either in process or “on the table”? I can’t. So, an on going school building project is “normal” for Jefferson County. Also, can you remember a school building project that didn’t include The Lewis Group? If your answer is “no” then you won’t be disappointed with the current front runner for the design and engineering of the proposed new Jefferson Elementary School and the proposed new Piedmont Elementary School because it is…..drum roll, please…The Lewis Group. I personally am beginning to wonder if Jefferson County has some sort of stock interest in that company. Apparently, despite concerns with several previous building projects, including coming in with project numbers that are way outside the allocated funding, this is the only firm that the Jefferson County School Board does business with and that makes me ( and it should make you) scratch my head a little. I have sat through meeting after meeting and witnessed various School Board members voice their dissatisfaction with the design process and costs. Yet, here we are again. Guess some things really are still status quo. Actually, it was a little different this time because not only will The Lewis Group be designing the projects, they actually identified the “need” for the projects when they were hired ( and paid substantial tax payer dollars) by the School Board to do a system wide needs assessment. If you are feeling a little like the goose that laid the golden egg right now I would “assess” that it is a perfectly reasonable reaction.

Now, let me acknowledge that Jefferson Elementary School is apparently in a serious state of disrepair. Teachers and Board Members and even a portion of the County Commission agree that the needs are real. I am a proponent of education and I believe that we have to take care of our schools. That being said, this is a terrible time to ask tax payers to take on additional debt, especially without looking at all of the options. Commissioner Huffaker made the statement during the funding request to the County Commission that our student numbers are so high in grades 10,9,8 and 7 that we cannot move the freshmen back to the main JCHS campus and utilize the Patriot Academy for Piedmont Elementary School ( thus eliminating an estimated $20 million dollar funding need and moving the Piedmont School location to a place that is already equip with city sewer). To that I would say this..we have no idea how many students will return to physical school in the fall. We also traditionally lose students as they near graduation for a multitude of reasons. Early graduation, dual enrollment and just plain dropping out are all reasons for class numbers to change. Building programs take a couple of years. By then, current 10th graders will be graduating and on their way out. Give it three years and the numbers will be fine to combine schools if they are not fine well before the three year mark. Is it worth waiting a few extra months ( the time between building new and moving schools) to save the county nearly $20 million dollars? Why would we even consider building until we know what is realistically available for use?

For the record, it is not the new schools that I oppose, it is the process that has and has not been gone through to establish the need and possibilities to accommodate our students and staff. Thirty or forty million dollars is a bunch of money in anyone’s bank account. Sure our debt falls off in 2023 for a few years. Just because we have a little breathing room doesn’t mean we need to fill the gap with new debt. No one is talking about the recent $11 million dollars for the nursing home. Yes, the facility pays that debt but should there be a time it cannot pay then the county is on the hook. Ultimately we own that debt even if we aren’t making the payments. These are unsure times. Are we sure that we won’t be picking up that $11 million dollar tab sometime in the future? Right now the only sure thing is that nothing is for sure.

Our County Commission and our School Board owes it to tax payers to exhaust every avenue to keep our debt low. As of now, I don’t see anything but building new on the table. We don’t know what the future will bring and when or if we will return to school days as usual. Neither do those that hold the purse strings and that is only one reason why $40 million dollars is a scary number. There is no emergency. We have time to ask the right questions and find the answers. Why now? Can we utilize the space we have in a different way to save millions of tax payer dollars? Why are we hiring the group that identified the “needs” to design the “fix”? Why are building projects always a “right now” proposition? The questions go on and on. Perhaps we could just tap the breaks and find a few answers before we sign the big checks. Maybe that could be our “new normal”.

Source: K. Depew, News Director