March 1, 2018 10:51:52 AM
Lowndes County School District Superintendent Lynn Wright appeared before the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors Wednesday seeking help to fund equipment for the district's new career tech center.
It did not go well for him at all.
After making his case in asking the supervisors to provide the $1.5 million needed to equip the $11 million facility on Lehmberg Road, perhaps by offering the sports facilities at the now-closed West Lowndes Middle School as a trade, supervisors flatly refused to entertain any idea of providing funding and questioned why the district needed the additional funds. Ultimately, they suggested the district had ways to obtain the money without the county's aid.
In making his pitch, Wright said the district's budget did not have the funds needed. He said while property tax revenue has increased in LCSD over the past three years, it has fallen a cumulative $6.3 million short of projections over that time.
"It's not that we aren't getting more money that before," Wright said. "We are. We're just not getting the amount that was projected at the time we put our budgets together. We budget based on those projections, so when they are lower than projected, it can create problems."
Wright said the funds for the equipment were part of the county's original plan when it presented a $47 million bond package to voters in 2014, which lost by a narrow margin. The district presented a $44 million bond package a year later that voters approved, but it did not include funds for the equipment.
In addition to the $11 million for the career tech center, the bond also funded $25 million for a new high school in New Hope. Wright said Wednesday that new furnishings for the school were provided in that bond. The new high school also opens in August.
Property deal shot down
Wright then suggested the county could take possession of the facilities at West Lowndes Middle School in exchange for the funding for the career tech equipment. Supervisors have mentioned the possibility of obtaining the school's gym and ball field for its new parks department, although that has never been brought to the board as a proposal.
West Lowndes Middle School is currently the home of the county's alternative school, which is moving to the old vocational center in New Hope this fall.
"The school has a gym, auditorium and kitchen, along with the school building," Wright said. "Right now, there is some interest in leasing the school building, so the county could lease that part of the property, if you wanted to do that."
Wright said the 15-acre property would likely be appraised at $2.5 million to $3 million, which he argued would be a good deal for the county.
"If the county will help us with the equipment, we will give you the property," he said.
The supervisors were having none of it.
"By law, you have to hold 7 percent of your operating budget in reserve, but y'all have 15 percent in reserve," board president Harry Sanders said. "That should be about $8 million. It seems to me, reserve funds are supposed to be used in case of a shortfall. So I don't know why y'all are coming to us when you have that money available."
Wright said the district has $7 million in reserve and that amount might not be enough to run the school in the event of a major emergency.
"The general idea is to have enough money to fund the district for two months," Wright said. "Right now, our monthly expenses are $5 million, so even with $7 million it would be enough to fund the schools for two months."
Wright: Equipment needed now
Sanders then questioned why the district needed more money after receiving more money in tax receipts, asking County Tax Assessor Greg Andrews to provide an update on the district's funding.
Andrews said that in the last three years, the district had received an increase of $5.1 million in tax revenues. The initial projections, he said, did fall due to depreciations claimed by Caledonia Gas and inventory write-offs at Steel Dynamics.
Wright noted much of the additional income goes to bond payments, $3 million per year over 18 years. He said while the district's budget outlook is strong going into next year, the money needed for the career tech equipment is needed now.
Sanders also asked why the district could not borrow the money needed for the equipment.
"You have a board that has the same authority to borrow money as we do," Sanders said. "It seems to me, you want us to borrow money for the equipment, and then we have to answer for that. That's something your board could do."
Sanders said he felt providing the funds for the equipment could create a precedent.
"If we do this, what happens when the Columbus schools want us to do something for them?" Sanders said.
Although rebuffed by supervisors, Wright said the district will proceed with backup plans to equip tech center.
"One way or another, we are going to get the equipment we need," Wright said. "We are talking with industry about getting some help with it and, as you have said, there are other ways."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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