School board passes capital needs plan

By Greg Oliver
Courtesy The Journal

EASLEY — After months of discussion, the Pickens County School Board of Trustees gave final approval last week to a $4.65 million capital needs plan for the 2015-16 academic year.

School district spokesman John Eby said $3.25 million of funding for the plan was generated by refinancing the district’s bonds for the 2006 building program at a lower interest rate.

Eby noted the additional $1.4 million was made available due to the sale of a property on Pendleton Street for $300,000 and the movement of the Pickens Elementary project into the building program as a qualifying project that made $1.1 million available. The additional $1.4 million is one-time funding that will not be available for the 2016-17 school year.

“The plan does not involve a tax increase,” Eby said.

Included in the plan is funding for technology items, such as teacher laptops, projector replacements and one-on-one technology for grades 6-9 for 2015-16, with expansion to grades 10-12 in subsequent years, servers and network infrastructure upgrades, elementary labs, digital textbooks and funding for facilities needs that include roofing and heating, ventilation and cooling replacements at Crosswell Elementary School, fencing, paving and playground equipment.

The plan also includes funding for athletic programs, band programs and activity buses.

District superintendent Danny Merck thanked the members of the facilities committee — chairman Henry Wilson, Brian Swords and Phillip Bowers — for their hard work in prioritizing more immediate, as well as future, needs in the school district.

“Over the next few years, we will face tremendous challenges to the school district, requiring school board and administration to work together in a unique way,” Merck said.

Wilson said the committee had “a great opportunity” to work with school district employees to come up with a list of needs and place those in a priority format for the upcoming school year.

“Once we had the plan and an understanding of what we needed to do as a school district, we worked together on the process of ranking and stacking these things,” Wilson said.

The chairman said his committee rated each project with a decision making matrix that measured each project’s impact on five areas: career and technology education; student environment, health and safety; infrastructure development and preventative maintenance; program diversity and flexibility; and extracurricular and student organizations. He added on-time graduation studies, test scores and mandated legislative initiatives were also factored into the equation.

“We weighed each of those items, from 0-5, and went line-by-line, column-by-column, and each of us voted 5-0 to put ourselves out there in a transparent way as to how each of these priorities impacted these columns,” Wilson said.

Swords commended Wilson for his work in establishing a format to use in prioritizing needs for the district that enabled the plan to be developed.

“He took the bull by the horns and ran with this and came up with a good plan,” Swords said.

Last fall, district administration presented to the school board $5.8 million in annual facilities and technology needs for the next five years that would result in a 4.8-mill tax increase.

However, the board on second reading in December approved a $3.2 million option deemed the moderate and more regressive of the three under consideration, and one that did not feature a tax increase. A third and final vote was tabled until spring, with the vote ultimately taking place this week.

In January, the board voted to refinance $300 million in bonds from the district’s building program that began in 2006. By refinancing, officials said the district would be allowed to issue new bonds generating approximately $3.25 million annually without raising the millage rate.

The committee said it would consider capital needs on a yearly basis.

Heidi Williams, a parent and member of Concerned Citizens of Pickens County, a group that has been advocating a tax increase to fully fund the annual $5.8 million initially sought by district administration, said the coming year’s budget “shows that trustees are hearing parents and teachers for the first time in a long time.”

“This budget may be a little smaller than what we were hoping for, but it addresses programs that traditionally have been on the chopping block, such as band, athletic equipment, playground equipment and updated technology, and restores some funding to them,” Williams said. “The reality is, many of our teachers rely on laptops that are almost a decade old. These computers overheat at the drop of a hat or, in many cases, don’t work at all.

“In recent years, there hasn’t been a dollar available to fix them so, instead, our teachers who are two full steps behind surrounding counties in their pay scale are going out and buying their own external hard drives with their own money so they can back up lesson plans and learning materials.

“So this budget should go a long way toward correcting that problem.”

What does concern Williams, a Central resident and the mother of two elementary-age children, is that increases in the capital budget are once again being funded primarily with one-time revenues. However, she is pleased that trustees have mapped out a five-year plan for building and technology costs that deals with failing roofs, boilers and heating, ventilation and cooling systems as well as computers.

“It’s likely the refinancing won’t necessarily cover all those costs in years two, three, four and five, so it’s imperative that our board look long-term and commit long-term so that we don’t risk backsliding,” she said. “As long as parents and education advocates continue to speak up, and as long as school trustees continue to listen to the majority of Pickens County taxpayers, I think we can be hopeful that this will occur.”