By MARINA WATERS
Washington County’s Budget Committee approved the Washington County Department of Education’s five-year capital project funding requests — sort of.
At the committee’s Wednesday, Aug. 15 meeting — the last meeting before newly elected commissioners join the Washington County Commission — the committee approved $110,000 for the South Central Elementary School roof replacement project, $250,000 to purchase one small and two large buses and $640,000 for technology investments. The $1 million total will come from the county’s capital projects fund balance for what county officials called the school system’s “critical needs”.
“I think, to the extent possible, both the school board and the county commission, from a capital projects funding perspective, need to be focusing on what absolutely has to be done now,” Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge said. “I think doing whatever has to absolutely be done this year, I think that needs to be the mantra for everything on this list.”
WCDE Maintenance Supervisor Philip Patrick dubbed the South Central roofing project as the most “critical item” on his list of maintenance improvement items. The school system only lacked $110,000 to have complete funding from the county (who already committed $560,000) for the South Central roof replacement project. Patrick said he plans to have the project completed by the end of next summer.
Meanwhile, technology was the only item on the five-year capital improvement plan to get full funding.
When asked about the impact the added technology has had on county students, WCDE Director of Elementary Education Karla Kyte told commissioners she feels the added technology has positively improved student testing outcomes.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you how many more students scored ‘mastered’ or ‘on track’ on tests because of technology,” Kyte said. “But it has to have impacted it.”
While the school system scored the full request for technology, the committee opted to approve $250,000 instead of $824,537 requested for school buses.
WCDE Special Projects Manager Jarrod Adams said the school system currently has seven large or conventional buses and two mini buses that have reached the age or mileage limit set by the state.
“We recognize this might be a burden for the county to have to look at giving us additional monies to buy school buses for our students,” Adams said, “but we’re talking about transporting our kids and the safety of our students.”
Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge told the committee that the county “doubled up” on bus funding last fiscal year, allocating over $2 million for buses. Mitch Meredith, the county’s financial director/budget advisor and a newly elected school board member, added that because the fiscal year and the school year doesn’t line up, there has been a time gap in funding and bus purchases.
“There was a delay in getting the financing matched up to the school year,” Meredith said. “We were budgeting based on a fiscal year basis. So we’re putting money aside for buses in (fiscal year) 2018-2019, but what they needed were funds for the buses that were coming on board in July of 2019. So it ’s a year out.
“What happened was we essentially compressed two years worth of buses financially into one year and that’s what we’re seeing in the budget for (fiscal year) 2017-2018.”
Adams said his biggest concern was having enough buses if ever the transportation department needed a substitute bus when one has to be repaired.
He also said that, if need be, the school system could get by with two large buses and one mini bus. But that would require increased inspections and, potentially, required maintenance upgrades for the system’s older buses.
“That effect would be we would have to work with the state to get a couple of our old buses that have reached that 15 year age limit inspected by the state,” Adams said, “so they could tell us, ‘Yes you can keep these buses on the” road if you do a, b, and c.’
“There’s a cost associated with it, but it’s nowhere near the cost of a new bus.”
The committee also decided to hold off on the Gray Elementary School re-bricking project, new lighting at the David Crockett High School softball field, and HVAC and electrical upgrades for Midway School. Those requests are subject to be discussed at a following meeting.
Though impending funding needs were prevalent at the meeting, Eldridge addressed what he called the “elephant in the room”, which is the Jonesborough School project.
He said the school board’s indecision on the project will cause either a “dramatic tax increase” or a “reshuffling” of the county’s capital needs.
“I can assure you with a new school board, the Jonesborough issue is not going to go away,” Eldridge said. “It’s not all of the sudden going to become a topic we once talked about it and don’t have anything to say about it anymore. It’s going to remain on the front burner until there is a resolution. I personally do not think that we need to be committing millions of dollars until the school board has figured out what they expect the solution in Jonesborough to be because it is going to impact everything from now on in this capital projects plan.
“You can’t forget about the elephant in the room. And that Jonesborough project is the elephant in the room when it comes to capital projects in Washington County until it’s resolved.”
The next county commission meeting will be held on Monday, Aug. 27 at 6 p.m. at the justice center in Jonesborough. The next school board meeting will be held on Thursday, Sept. 6 at 6:30 p.m. at the WCDE central office in Jonesborough. All newly elected officials will be sworn in on Friday, Aug. 31 at 9 a.m. at the justice center.