County BOE approves 5-year capital plan

By NICOLE SMITH, Daily Mountain Eagle
Posted 9/24/17

The Walker County Board of Education passed its 5-year capital plan on Sept. 7, which will include a number of improvements at county schools, including the possibility of a new Dora High School.

In an interview with Superintendent Dr. Jason …

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County BOE approves 5-year capital plan

Posted

The Walker County Board of Education passed its 5-year capital plan on Sept. 7, which will include a number of improvements at county schools, including the possibility of a new Dora High School.

In an interview with Superintendent Dr. Jason Adkins last week, Adkins detailed projects that are set in stone, and those that may take a few years to potentially come to fruition. He also discussed the school board’s budget, saying it was a long road to get the school system in its current, strong financial standing.

Adkins said the school system was $1.2 million in the hole in 2011, with the need for a new school in Sumiton to combat overcrowding in the Dora and Sumiton areas. At that time, he said borrowing money eventually resulted in the school system having money back in the general fund.

“Through some pretty astute financial understanding and the state relinquishing some guidelines on the ability to refinance old debt, we were able to get that done,” Adkins said. “We borrowed $12 million initially, and by closing the other two low enrollment schools, that $12 million put about $1.5 million back into the general fund. Then the expense of that loan was around $500,000. So by borrowing $12 million, we actually benefited from it by about $1 million.”

He said closing Parrish High School was a cost savings of $700,000 to $800,000.

“At that point in time, that freed up enough money to borrow about $8 million to do some improvements all over the place on some needs. Those needs were specific to the location of the schools,” he said.

The school board also took out a loan of $3.5 million during that time for school buses.

“Borrowing all that money, the other mechanisms in play actually put money into our budget and freed us up for the first time to be financially secure where we can do certain things,” Adkins said. “We were able to employ things on a much smaller scale to make some improvements all over the county with the $12 million loan and the $8 million loan, but that also came with school closures. There’s a high cost that it took to make that work, and when you start closing schools that’s a very traumatic experience for everybody involved, including the ones making decisions, but that’s the only way we were able to pull that off.”

He added, “We’re not in the business of closing anymore schools.”

Since building Sumiton Elementary School, the school board has continued to make improvements at schools across the county. Current projects include multi-purpose facilties at Dora and Oakman High schools, and landscaping at Parrish Elementary School was completed last week. Parrish Elementary will also receive a new gym floor ($60,000) and roof ($375,000) between 2018 and 2019.

“If you go into that elementary school and look at it, it is very nice. It is one of our nicer schools. ... The culture at Parrish Elementary is very conducive to student success. It’s going to continue to be a part of what we do,” Adkins said. “The return on that investment is very beneficial to the system as a whole for several reasons. Mainly the fact that it is a good school, it performs good services in the community and it keeps zoning from being an issue where those kids can continue to be able to decide where they attend.”

Other projects in 2018 will include asphalt at Curry Elementary ($110,000), a chiller for the Carl Elliott Building that houses the county BOE ($150,000), a roof for Curry Middle School ($350,000) and a front entrance for Lupton Jr. High School ($60,000). Adkins said they recently met with the architect managing the Lupton project. Carbon Hill High School may also receive a multi-purpose facility next year.

While all the projects in 2018 are set in stone, new bleachers for Curry High School ($250,000), a new library and classrooms at Cordova Elementary ($700,000) and a new Dora High School (30,000,000) are all possibilities.

“The only place where there is an aesthetic need for tremendous improvement would be Dora High School,” Adkins said. “I think it’s possible that the state let a bond issue. Margaret [Scurlock, chief financial officer for Walker County Schools] and I have a plan in place where it is very possible — we can’t say with 100 percent certainty — but it is possible that we’ll be able to build a high school in Dora. Although it is not set in stone, it is not a pie in the sky dream either. ... We can’t come up with $30 million locally.”

He continued, “They deserve and need the opportunity to have that school situation rectified. I think it’s possible to rectify it. It would take an action of the state that is way overdue. They should let a bond issue. If they let a $1 billion bond issue, we could get $20 million and that would become a reality.”

Adkins said the school system continues to have a “healthy” budget to make smaller projects a reality, adding that risk management company Moody’s recently gave the board a AA rating to reflect good financial standing for capital improvements.

“That’s about as high as a school system is going to get. That meant we had no risk of us paying that money back,” he said. “We think we are stable financially. I can say with 100 percent certitude the Moody’s rating says, very emphatically, that with a AA rating that means that you have a very sound financial situation.”

Adkins said the Walker County Commission’s financial battle will not impact the school system’s bottom line.

“The way it doesn’t effect us is we get 10 mills from sales tax,” he said. “We also have a cushion that they don’t have. We have reached a financial status where not only can we build things and incur a little fixed cost, but we can also have extra personnel. This school system has never been able to do both.”

He said the commission still owes Walker County children $800,000 that was kept by the commission as a fee for collecting sales tax monies to be distributed to city and county schools. The commission has since sued state auditors and is requesting declaratory judgment to avoid paying the school system back the money state auditors claim the commission owes.

“The Walker County Commission owes the school board $800,000, and at some point in time they’re going to have to figure out a way to pay that,” he said. “That’s not in our budget, that’s not in our plans, but it was revealed to us by the auditors that that money belongs to the school students of Walker County.”

Adkins said enrollment has gone down in schools across the county that could be attributed to the county’s economy, but new Pre-K classrooms in the county made up for the shortfall.

As the board moves forward with a number of capital projects, Adkins said one bond issue will pay off in 2018, one in 2022 and another in 2023. School bus debt will also pay off in 2021.