by Madison White Franks
LANCASTER—On April 27, the Lancaster board of supervisors approved requests authorizing the school board to apply for a $70 million United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development Loan and to advertise a request for proposals (RFP) related to the design phase of school facilities.
County administrator Frank Pleva said he had been in discussions with Tara Delaney, a USDA loan specialist.
“She has volunteered to come and talk about their funding program for community facilities which this would fall under,” said Pleva.
He indicated Delaney said if the schools would apply for a $70 million USDA Rural Development Loan, they would not be locked into that amount until something is signed.
“Depending on the financial situation at the time, we realize that we might have to modify,” said school board chairman Bob Westbrook of District 5.
“We know that we have needs to improve our school facilities…but I think it would be easier for us to make a decision on behalf of all the taxpayers if we had some options as to whether we do it all at one time or not,” said District 1 supervisor F.W. “Butch” Jenkins Jr.
Board chairman District 4 supervisor Bill Lee suggested the RFP allow for options so the project can evolve.
“Until the supervisors decide what that scope in cost is going to be, you will not be able to finalize a fee because you will not know what it is going to be based on,” said Pleva.
District 3 supervisor Jason Bellows indicated the RFP would basically lay out what the county wants in terms of cost and once the RFP is established it would allow the board to look at what the county can afford.
“There is no question that the facilities need to be improved,” said District 5 supervisor B. Wally Beauchamp.
Bellows introduced a motion to authorize the school board to seek the USDA loan and issue an RFP. The motion passed, 5-0, with support from District 2 supervisor Ernest Palin Jr., Jenkins, Lee, Beauchamp and Bellows.
Pleva clarified that this approval would not be fiscally binding.
The school board also requested supervisors raise the real estate tax rate one cent per $100 assessed value to help fund the project.
“The budget expenditure is based on a fiscal year and the tax calendar 2017,” said Pleva.
“This process has been going on for 19 months and we have tried to get this to you as quickly as we could, consistent with bringing the public along and educating the public on these measures…throughout this 19-month process, there were public meetings throughout the county and I appreciate the fact that people came to those meetings,” said Westbrook.
“We can realize the value because we can afford the cost…what is really critical about all of this is that we keep going with the process and that requires the application for the loan because we have to get in the queue for the funds,” he said.
“When we set the tax rate in June or July when we adopt the budget, that is where we would add the one cent,” said Bellows.
Jenkins noted there is no need for an action on the request to add one cent to taxes because it would be a part of the board’s budget process.
Bellows indicated this did not mean that the supervisors are approving or denying the request but when the appropriate time comes, the supervisors will take up the request due to other funds being needed in the county’s budget.
“I appreciate the fact that the relationships between this board and the school board has improved to the point that we can have these kinds of discussions and honestly talk with each other about the issues at this county and that the schools face…if we are going to continue any kind of economic development future here, improving our schools to be the best they can be are priority number one and something that we have to do,” said Bellows.
School board action
The school board on April 26 accepted the recommendations from an ad hoc school facilities committee to build a new middle and high school and renovate the current middle school for elementary classes.
District 4 school board member Joan Gravatt introduced a motion to accept the recommendations and District 2 school board member Kenya Moody seconded the motion. Westbrook and District 3 school board member Audrey Thomasson supported the motion and District 1 school board member Bob Smart cast the only opposing vote, resulting in a 4-1 decision to pursue the project.
They also voted, 5-0, to seek the tax increase
Thomasson indicated how important it is to request the increase.
“One of the schools that I got to visit in Virginia Beach, in anticipation of building schools…they continually saved every year in their taxes and they took $10 million of their taxes towards new schools. This county has not done that but luckily our administration has been fiscally responsible and has made the steps to stop spending in the capital improvement budget, to accumulate some of that money…I feel that it is really important and in the future for the board of supervisors to start thinking and planning ahead for the future of this county,” said Thomasson.
“I think the money that we save should be set aside for things like this. We keep our budget stringent to save taxpayers money but also don’t you think it’s a little wise to have savings in case something comes up?…the budget has decreased,” said Moody.
“What has happened in the past is that the schools have asked that unspent money be set aside in a special designated account towards them and the board of supervisors at the time said that was not possible by law, but I am seeing it done in so many other counties,” said Thomasson.
“I believe that the time has come, we need to seriously look at upgrading our school infrastructure and I really like the idea of a school escrow account,” said Smart.
The school board also took action to pursue the USDA funding. The motion passed, 4-0-1, with Smart abstaining.
“Just because the application is made for $70 million, it doesn’t mean that the entire loan has to be for that amount. It is going to depend on what comes out of the design phase and what is approved by the board of supervisors. It will be better to apply and not use than to apply for too little and need more,” said superintendent Steve Parker.
The final action item, seeking authorization to issue the RFP, also passed, 5-0.
“This is exactly where we wanted to go…phase one is complete, ” said Moody.
“There is an importance in moving forward because in 2012 when the other facilities study was done, nothing went further than that and I think the community got very frustrated that things just fell apart,” said Thomasson.
“It’s the responsibility of the school board to make decisions about what is best for our students…we are going to meet that responsibility” said Westbrook.
“We really appreciate them [school facilities committee] guiding us so that we can make a decision. Everything has been open and I feel that I can make a decision with the information that they gave us and I would like to be the one to say thank you,” said Gravatt.
“We all have personal values and opinions…when I sit on this board, I don’t speak for me, I don’t make decisions for me, I make decisions for the people that elected me on this board and I speak for my constituents,” said Moody.
She thanked the school facilities committee and noted that the members conducted true community service for the county.
Thomasson then commented that board member Smart “hijacked the spotlight from the public” at a hearing April 18.
She also accused Smart of breeching confidentiality by informing the public about business that was held in closed session and also of conducting school business as an individual board member when that is not allowed.
“You showed you are not a team player by refusing to participate in an open and transparent process,” said Thomasson.
“I am entitled as a citizen to call whoever I want,” said Smart.