​Middle School Funding Unresolved: County Commission Wants Out-the-Door Price

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer
On April 10, the Franklin County School Board and Franklin County Commission met in a joint session to discuss funding options for addressing the problem of the county’s two aging middle schools.
In 2016, the engineering firm Oliver, Little, and Gipson (OLG) presented the board with three possible solutions: renovate (cost $35–$37 million); build two new schools (cost $48–$55 million); build a single consolidated school (cost $32–$37 million).
In May of 2017, the school board passed a resolution requesting the County Commission authorize a $37.5 million bond to fund construction of a single consolidated school. The board rejected renovation due to structural issues with the buildings and disruption of students during the 15–20 month renovation process.
“If money were not an issue the board would want two new schools,” said fifth district school board representative Adam Tucker, “but we decided it was not a realistic ask, so we set that option aside.”
“I’ve talked to parents, and nobody wants one big school,” said commissioner Angie Fuller, seventh district seat B, speaking in favor of renovation.
Commissioners Iris Rudder, first district seat B, and Barbara Finney, sixth district seat A, concurred.
Commissioner Lisa Mason, second district seat A, said the people in her district favored one school and strongly objected to children being in the buildings during renovation due to mold issues.
Commissioner David Eldridge, seventh district seat A, suggested the construction cost figures were “inflated” and that the schools were told to “ask for everything you’d like to have.”
Board member Lance Williams, third district, insisted, “We’re not asking for anything but the basics, library, cafeteria, and auditorium.”
Tucker pointed out the cost figures did not include furnishings, computers, and other amenities and were engineering estimates, not actual design plans. “We haven’t engaged an architect,” he said.
Engineer Tim Little with OLG estimated an architectural design would cost $1.8 million.
“The actual cost could be $45 million,” said commissioner Dave Van Buskirk, third district seat A, citing the new jail where the cost greatly exceeded estimates.
Commissioner Gene Snead, first district seat A, said he wanted a comparison of operating costs for the three options over 50 years. “There’s a lot of efficiency in one building,” Snead said.
“We don’t want to spend thousands of dollars on studies,” Williams said.
“Or engage an architect when we don’t know we have funding for the project,” Tucker added.
County Commission Chair Eddie Clark, fourth district seat A, observed if the cost of the consolidated school held at $37.5 million, the county could fund the project without a tax increase once the new high school was paid off in 2022.
Tucker confirmed that was correct, but if construction began now, an 8 percent tax increase would be needed “to get us through the first few years.”
“As a county commissioner I can’t support funding for ‘ifs.’ It’s the boards call about the school, but our call about funding,” said Rudder. “Dr. Lonas [former director of schools] did a good job of selling the consolidated school idea to the community. That’s what the board and commission need to do, but we need an ‘out the door price.’”
“Do we want to do what’s cheaper or what people want?” asked commissioner Helen Stapleton, fifth district seat B.
Commissioner Johnny Hughes, fifth district seat A, suggested letting the public decide by a referendum and funding the project with a wheel tax.
County Finance Director Andrea Smith said the county couldn’t afford the $1.8 million for the architectural design without issuing a bond.
“There’s a risk the commission won’t approve the design if the cost is too high,” Van Buskirk said.
Eldridge concurred. “We may need to eat the $1.8 million.”
“Will the commission even discuss two new schools?” asked school board member Linda Jones, second district.
“If you want two schools, bring us the facts,” Rudder said.
Summing up the evenings discussion, Board Chair CleiJo Walker, sixth district, said, “We can’t give you exact figures without making an expenditure of money.”