By C.V. Moore
A major error in an architect’s report reveals that the total cost to upgrade school facilities in Fayette County rests at $136 million, nearly $14 million more than was reported at Monday’s Board of Education meeting. Addressing only the most critical needs will cost $46 million.
Now that the true price of fixing up all existing schools is known, will that change the tune of those who want to see all schools remain open? A facilities advisory committee of 60 citizens will meet for the first time Thursday to view the report and begin to make meaning of its findings.
The $136 million includes all items that are strongly recommended to be addressed in order to provide an acceptable school environment. It would cover things like new restrooms, new fire alarms, paving, windows and ADA compliance items.
Of that total cost, the architect also highlighted $46 million in critical needs that must be addressed to keep schools in continued operation — new roofs, HVAC systems and sprinkler systems, for example.
Fayetteville High School has the highest projected critical needs, totaling $5.6 million. The list includes new science rooms, a new kitchen and dining area, new special education classrooms, a new HVAC system and other items.
Valley High and Collins Middle schools also need over $5 million each to be brought up to code.
The architect’s report also includes costs for replacing facilities outright. Building new schools would cost $282 million, roughly twice as much as upgrading.
The margin between fixing or rebuilding is very narrow in some cases.
Building a new Gatewood Elementary, for example, would cost only $1.6 million more than upgrading. Mount Hope Elementary and Ansted Middle also have margins under $3 million.
In addition to the $136 million in recommended upgrades, school communities will be putting forward a “wish list” of improvements to their schools, such as a new football field or auditorium. These lists will be the result of school meetings over the next several weeks.
The error in the ZMM Architects & Engineers report — prepared at no cost for the school system — appears to be one of transcription. Valley High School’s total repair cost was entered as $1.5 million instead of the correct $15 million — with $5,286,600 specified as critical needs.
The report was distributed at the board meeting the day it was received, the result of a tight timeline to hold a community input process and get a bond prepared by July.
A 2010 report on the school system from the Office of Education Performance Audits (OEPA), which directly led to the state’s takeover of Fayette County Schools, concluded that an extended period of deferred maintenance had brought the county’s buildings to such a deteriorated state that the amount of work to improve them would be “insurmountable.”
This is perhaps the first time that a thorough catalogue has been made of exactly what that deterioration looks like, and whether it is truly “insurmountable.”
“We, the anti-consolidationists, are equally guilty as the pro-consolidationists of not getting our head out of the sand and looking at this realistically,” said Paul McClung. “The true cost has been lurking in the shadows all along.”
McClung is one of two original members of a steering committee overseeing a public input process to gain consensus on a path forward for the school system and its numerous aging buildings.
He is a member of Meadow Bridge Citizens for Community Schools and has historically fought to keep schools in the county open.
The county has been stymied for decades over the consolidation issue, enduring waves of litigation and bitter conflict.
The current examination of facilities needs, and the attendant community input process, is an opportunity for the county to look at the issue very carefully, in both the short and long term.
Despite the giant price tag presented on Monday, McClung says he remains optimistic that his vision to keep all schools open is not dead.
He believes the committee of 60 will be able to look at the numbers, peel some items away, and “make it workable,” and that the School Building Authority could contribute matching funds to halve the total cost.
McClung says he agrees with board member Leon Ivey that “we can’t just Band-Aid this thing and five years down the road go and revisit every bit of it.”
Ivey and others have asked what will happen in a few years when more critical needs arise and the county has used up its bonding capacity.
McClung admits that spending $46 million on critical needs is probably not enough to get the schools where they need to be.
“When the group of 60 meets, that has to be taken into account,” he said. “These buildings need to be repaired and built with a long-term view of them. So it’s going to drive the $46 million up higher. However, there is no alternative that has ever been any better.”
So far no one, either pro- or anti-consolidation, has put forward a solution to Fayette County’s long-term facility needs.
The report was received Monday and presented to the Board of Education by Fayette County Schools Superintendent Keith Butcher during the evening’s board meeting. The state superintendent of schools, Dr. James Phares, also attended the meeting.
Citizens overflowed the board room, packed into the lobby, and even spilled out onto the sidewalk.
One much-discussed option — put forward by two Meadow Bridge area residents — is to put a bond before voters this fall that would repair facilities and keep them all open.
But given the county’s approximately $67 million bonding capacity, one bond will not cover those costs as previously assumed.
“I think addressing our needs will clearly take more than one bond or (School Building Authority) funding or all the maintenance funds we have in our budget. It will take all that,” said Butcher.
He also emphasized for every year the county waits to address the needs, the bill goes up.
A 2009 bond for $48.8 million that would have built a new high school to draw students from Fayetteville, Midland Trail, Mount Hope, and Oak Hill high schools was overwhelmingly rejected.
Proponents of keeping all schools open say this shows that Fayette countians want to preserve community schools. Opponents say that doing so is fiscally irresponsible and does not address curriculum needs, which were cited as a major problem in the audit that led to state takeover of the county system in 2010.
To keep all schools open would be a sharp reversal from the state’s previous position — that Fayette needs to increase efficiency by closing some of its 18 schools — and from the Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plan vetted by a committee of Fayette County citizens in 2010.
The reasons given in the past for closing schools included the need to address a teacher shortage, a thin curriculum spread over five high schools, and aging facilities that had not been adequately maintained over too many years.
County administrators expect to use the bond, if it passes, as matching funds to seek funding from the School Building Authority for new construction.
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