October 12, 2013 11:33:12 PM
Sarah Fowler - [email protected]
The Lowndes County School District is planning to spend millions of dollars, but it won't cost taxpayers any additional money, at least not initially.
During Monday night's school board meeting, board members voted 4-1 to approve a "master plan" for construction projects that will be implemented in two phases at a total cost estimated at $69 million.
Phase 1 consists of building a new elementary school and expanding the current middle school on the Caledonia campus, upgrading facilities at New Hope Elementary and converting West Lowndes Middle School into the district's alternative school.
If West Lowndes Middle School is used strictly as an alternative school, sixth graders will be sent to the elementary school while seventh and eighth graders will be sent to the high school. Superintendent Lynn Wright has repeatedly pointed out that with just 88 students at West Lowndes Middle School, the smallest enrollment of the three middle schools in the district, taxpayers are currently paying more than $1.5 million to keep the school operating.
Board attorney Jeff Smith stressed that the board approved the master plan as an option for the district and it is not set in stone.
According to Smith, the most pressing matter concerns Caledonia Elementary School. With more than 1,100 students in the elementary building, including the largest kindergarten class in the district, Caledonia school officials have had to purchase trailers to use as makeshift classrooms to accommodate the growing student population. If all goes according to plan, the new elementary school would be open by August 2015 at a cost of $ 16 million. The other Phase 1 projects, which are being deemed as "emergency matters" by the school board, will bring the total cost to $25 million.
Noting the school board has more than $11 million in reserve funds, board attorney Jeff Smith said a bond issue will not be required to fund Phase 1.
"Phase 1 will be paid for by the funds the district has saved or set aside during the past three or more years," Smith said.
Smith said short-term financing, as well as lease purchasing options, will also be used to cover the costs. Smith reminded the board that New Hope High School was paid for by lease purchasing options when it was constructed in 1992 .
Smith said the board will use the financing to avoid causing "any additional burden to the taxpayers."
"No bond issue will be used for any of this," he said.
However, a bond issue will be needed to fund the more expensive Phase 2. The master plan issue by JBHM Architecture said a $50-million bond would be required. The plan lists costs of $15 million for the land purchase and completion of a vocational center, $26 million for a new high school on the New Hope campus and an additional $2.8 million in renovations. Smith said he felt a $40 million or $50 million bond would be unlikely.
"I doubt if the bond would ever be $40 million because this time next year the county will probably assess much higher," Smith said. Lowndes County recently assessed at more than $1 billion in value and that number is expected to increase as more industry comes to the area.
Smith said that if and when a bond issue is presented to voters, the school board would provide residents a clear picture of what the school needs and where taxpayers' money would go.
"The bond issue, the way we were going to do it, we were just going to say upfront (what we need). It would be clear. That's the way that has to be," he said.
Smith said the bond issue would be presented to voters in mid-2014 at the earliest. Voters would have to approve the bond issue by a 60-percent vote.
Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.