We’ve generally had a pretty good impression of the new superintendent, Dr. Dain Butler, since he arrived last July. Likewise, we’ve felt that board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves and most other board members have generally been paying closer attention than many previous boards when school officials parade before them with various reports, studies, and policy and spending requests.
But we have to wonder if everyone was asleep this week when absolutely outrageous spending requests and estimates came before the school board – and there was nary a peep of concern or questioning from any member.
Perhaps they remained in such a daze after the announcement of their fellow member Patsy Simpson’s resignation. We have to say, for whatever faults she may have had, we have no question that none of the following would have escaped Simpson’s notice and intense scrutiny.
We need more than the vapid, bobble-headed approach that was on display Monday night. And a more substantive reaction than some members displayed, acting like students cutting up in the back of a high school freshman English class after Simpson’s resignation letter was read.
As we’ve noted previously, we’ve had our disagreements with Simpson (over time, and recently), but she has been conscientious and diligent in overseeing school administrations for 16 consecutive years.
Regardless of who ultimately takes her seat, who’s going to take up Simpson’s role in asking both obvious, logical, and penetrating questions of the administration?
Greg Hook, the school system’s relatively new chief operating officer, came before the school and with a seemingly straight face told them that the school system needs $25 MILLION, this coming year, for repairs and maintenance. (That compares to the usual annual rate of $3.3 million, just by the way. So just 7½ times the normal annual level!)
If we could believe Mr. Hook’s figures in the first place, this is, first and foremost, an astounding indictment of the school system itself.
Are we to believe that school officials and school boards (prior to the arrival of three new members in December) were so incompetent, and so delinquent, as to have allowed such a startling deficiency in the structural status of schools across the county?
Now, we recognize that the school system is in a snit with the county commissioners over how much money is in a capital reserve fund (designated for the school system) over which the commissioners are the final authority.
But even if one were to assume the school system is entitled to all of the money that has accumulated in that fund, the needs unveiled this week are twice the amount that is even potentially available.
But to add insult to injury, school board members also sat on their hands and didn’t have a single question or comment when Hook outlined an even more outrageous figure: $56.5 MILLION in future capital needs, most of which ($47 million) he said would be in the form of additions and expansions at four schools – Alexander Wilson, Eastlawn, and Elon elementary schools and Woodlawn Middle School.
Frankly, again, if he’s to be believed even a little bit, the school system would be better off to build another elementary school, rather than add on to existing ones.
Especially puzzling is the fact that brand new Elon Elementary School, that just opened in 2019, now needs 10 more classrooms.
Notably missing from the presentation Monday night was this factoid: while he described the four schools as “at capacity,” in fact, according to ABSS’ own figures, enrollment this past fall at each of the four was 36 to 84 students (or at least one to three classrooms) below their stated capacities.
Elon Elementary, by the way, is said to have cost $16.1 million – just four years ago. Granted, construction costs may have been better controlled since Elon University paid for the new building as part of a “swap” for the former Elon Elementary School and site that the university traded with the school system for the new school.
Still, with a list of 30 new classrooms at a proposed cost of $32 million, it wouldn’t take much to figure it would be cheaper to build a new elementary school than add on to three schools.
But no one on the school board thought to question any of this.
And to make a bad financial management situation still worse, Hook also informed the school system that none – let’s repeat that, none – of the spending projects that were to be funded from the $150 million bond referendum that voters passed in November 2018 has been completed! Not one.
While the new high school, Southeast, is slated to be finished by the end of next month, there are oodles of other projects that still aren’t yet finished – and no schedule for their future completion was given.
But, yet again, no school board member thought to ask about that anomaly.
It seems, by the way, that some of the schools that were slated to be addressed with bond money actually have money left over – at least so far.
How much, you may ask? $14.8 MILLON, almost 10 percent of the total pot of money voters authorized.
We’re baffled by one of the superintendent’s claims: he told the newspaper the other night that all of the bond projects were under-budgeted – i.e., that the school system didn’t pencil in enough money to finish the projects.
But the materials distributed from the school system at the meeting showed, instead, that there’s $14.8 million that hasn’t been spent.
So here’s what we think is a rather minimum requirement that at least one school board member should have thought of – because we’re fairly certain some or most county commissioners will ask about it. How about prioritizing getting all of the 2018 bond projects finished before you come to the well, again, asking for $81.5 million – more money for next year ($25 million) or future years ($56.5 million).
We had hoped that the current administration was going to be different in being more fiscally responsible and restrained, and more accountable to the school board and to the county commissioners and the taxpayers.
Instead, we’re reminded of the summary the late county commissioner Bill Lashley (father of the current commissioner) used to say, “Even Fort Knox doesn’t have enough money to satisfy the school system.”