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Beyond $102 million

Funds were mandated for construction only; a look ahead to Phase II

Posted: November 29, 2011 5:03 p.m.
Updated: November 30, 2011 5:00 a.m.

The current economic downturn brought low construction costs, allowing the Kershaw County School District (KCSD) to move forward with an ambitious $102 million Installment Purchase Plan (IPP)-funded facilities equalization plan. But it also brought a wave of criticism from county residents who grew increasingly frustrated with seeing new school construction at the same time the district laid off teachers, slashed National Board Certification (NBC) stipends and enacted districtwide furloughs.

What many people didn’t realize, KCSD Superintendent Dr. Frank Morgan said, was that the school district would never have been able to use the IPP funds to save teacher jobs.

“If we had the ability to stop construction on some of these additional items and bring that money into our operational funds we would have done it,” KCSD Chief Financial Officer Donnie Wilson added. “We could not, by law, do that; we could not mix the money. The bondholders, the people who bought the debt from us and gave us that money, they knew specifically why that money was given … if suddenly we took it from that pot and moved it to operations -- we would go to jail.”

While Morgan said that while people readily acknowledged the school district’s facilities were in dire need of upgrades, many believed that even more money could have been saved by simply renovating facilities instead of building new ones.

Doing so, Wilson said, would have cost the school district more money than it would have taken to build a new school.

“What a lot of folks do not understand is that when you’re going into a building to renovate it, if you touch it you’re settling in under the new building codes,” he said, “and we determined that it would cost millions more dollars to renovate an old building than it would cost to build a new one.”

A perception that the school district built “Taj Mahal” schools isn’t true, Morgan said.

“That’s baloney. If you take a look at the new buildings that we’ve constructed and you compare them with buildings being constructed in any other part of the state or country, you will find out that we’ve put up attractive, durable, cost-efficient space,” Morgan said. “There’s nothing wrong with a building being attractive. These buildings are going to last 50 years.”

That was also the school district’s reasoning behind its decision to use part of the interest earned from the IPP funds to purchase a new school district office -- a controversial move angering many residents who felt all of the facilities equalization funds should have gone toward projects at KCSD schools.

“My response was to be able to get a building that was valued over $3 million -- including all that land -- for 30 percent of its appraised value that would be adequate for years to come, versus trying to renovate a building that would never be adequate. (It) seemed to be the best business move,” Morgan said. “It was a business decision ... I was scared that two years from now that boiler was going to go and we would have to come up with $300,000 and we were still in a building that had no parking and no public access. It was a business decision, and I think that it was a darn good business decision.”

Time for Phase II

Even with all of the construction projects in the first phase of the facilities equalization program, Morgan said that a number of unmet needs in the school district’s facilities are still needed.

“That’s why we’re going to start talking about the second phase,” he said.

Because the Installment Purchase Plan is no longer “permitted by state law,” Morgan said, the second phase will ultimately go before voters as a ballot referendum.

The highest bond referendum passed in Kershaw County came in at $25 million.

“We’re going to have to show people very clearly what the needs are. We’re going to have to make sure that the entire county feels like it has a stake in the referendum,” Morgan said. “That’s going to be very important, and I really want to take my time and make sure the information is out there clearly, because folks can get people excited about misinformation.”

Using the Heery Report -- which Morgan said is still applicable because construction costs are about the same -- the Kershaw County Board of School Trustees will conduct a school-by-school review of needs at each full board as well as Facilities and Finance Committee meetings. Afterward, a preliminary project list with estimated costs will be developed for and approved by the board.

Public meetings will be held for comment, and the board will develop a final proposal for possible referendum.

Morgan said no timeline has been set, and the process could take as long as two years to complete.

“I’m going to do my darndest,” he said when asked if he expects the referendum to pass. “We’re just going to run a good process and let the voters decide.”

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