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Committee studies school funding

By: Cinde Ingram

GUILFORD COUNTY — As they dove deeper into the $2 billion longterm Guilford County Schools facilities master plan on Thursday, members of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners and Board of Education joint facilities planning committee discussed priorities and funding options.

Phase 1 of the plan focuses on full rebuilds and renovations of aging schools most in need and is expected to cost more than $1.12 billion, according to the recommendation. Phase 2 would tackle the remainder of school building needs and is projected to cost $918.7 million.

“That’s the basic logic: Let’s take care of our worst first,” said David Sturtz, a partner with school planning firm Cooperative Strategies. “That sets up our ability to do the other kinds of projects” in the second phase.

Superintendent Sharon Contreras made an alternate suggestion of dividing the project into three phases, and said the school system can prepare a plan based on that option.

“Our thinking behind Phase 1 and Phase 2 is there is legislation at the state level to allow for a half-cent sales tax that could generate enough for half of this project to be completed, if that is the will of the joint committee,” Contreras said. “However, if that does not come to fruition, we could also consider three phases.”

She asked whether the school board and commissioners would be willing to ask the local legislative delegation to support a half-cent sales tax for Guilford County. Commissioner Chairman Jeff Phillips said he had discussed that with Rep. Jon Hardister earlier Thursday morning.

“He indicated to me that he would get to work on it right away to find out why it stalled in the lastest session and help move it along as best he could in the House,” Phillips said. “To clarify, currently we’re able to put a quarter-cent sales tax, should Board of Commissioners choose to do so, on the ballot for voters to consider here in Guilford County.”

If voters should approve it, that it would generate about $19.5 million each year. Voters have said no at least four times in the past 15 years or so, Phillips added.

“This modification, should it approved by the General Assembly, would allow us to move up to a half-cent sales tax, if the voters agree, and also permit the Board of Commissioners to designate (its use),” Phillips said. “As we’re looking at how to pay for whatever we decide to do relative to a potential bond passage in the future, that’s certainly on the table.”

Addressing overcrowded schools also was clearly a priority, but committee members were split on how many phases to divide the project into and how many years the plan would take to accomplish. They will have to figure out the sequence of the projects within each phase so students and staff aren’t moved without facilities being ready for their return, Sturtz said.

The committee agreed to meet again at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. That will be after the full Board of Commissioners has the chance to delve deeper into the issue at its next regular meeting on Jan. 16.

“There’s a lot to be determined,” Phillips said. Commissioners have looked at funding Phase 1 in the $700-$750 million range “from a fiscally responsible perspective and feel like that’s a number we might be able to absorb without impacting property taxes to a great degree,” Phillips said.

Guilford County Schools Chief Operations Officer Scott McCully said extending the work over more years will likely lead to higher costs because of inflation.

“The intent here is to look beyond playing whack-a-mole with facility needs,” Sturtz said. “This is a shot in the arm to get ahead of the curve, and then you can maintain” to prevent the situation from recurring for future generations of students.

Future generations also were on the mind of Commissioner Skip Alston, who attended the meeting but does not serve on the committee. He said he would prefer the school board make a recommendation based on their needs rather than how much they think the county is able to pay. He also wants the boards to consider asking business leaders to participate with funding since it impacts economic development and future workers.

“I would be more aggressive with it,” Alston said. “I would call for a plan of $1 billion and then three years after that a plan of $500,000 and three years later another $500,000 to go ahead and do it in six years rather than 10 years. Because another generation of kids should not be bearing these unnecessary repairs. If our kids are our priority, we should act like they’re our priority.”

School system Chief of Staff Nora Carr said the conversation seems to be shifting from whether the school facility needs are real to how the county can move forward to address them. “There’s a lot of ground that still needs to be covered in a relatively short period of time, but having a joint facility committee, getting the information of this in time and discussing the information are all steps forward,” she said.

Link to Original Post: https://hpenews.com/news/12978/committee-studies-school-funding/