Financial commitment for new high school discussed
The Woodford County Board of Education’s financial commitment to build a new high school was discussed during a three-and-one-half-hour meeting Monday. A resolution adopted in September 2018, which restricted $600,000 in the general fund for a new high school, does not bind future boards to set aside those dollars annually, a bond attorney informed the board in an email. That revelation led Dani Bradley to question why she and other board members were never told the $600,000 restriction was not an ongoing commitment. Schools Superintendent Scott Hawkins said the general fund dollars were restricted for that first year, and when the funds were committed to a high school project, it was our belief that “we would have to continue restricting those funds,” in response to board member Allison Richardson’s question. She said board members have been told for the last year that its commitment was ongoing and those funds would need to be un-restricted. If the board votes to build a complete high school, the district will have to make annual bond payments from a revenue source. Options going forward include adopting a resolution that restricts general fund revenue for the 2019-20 school year and/or amending the high school project’s BG-1 documents. Those options are on next Monday’s regular meeting agenda as action items. Board member Sherri Springate questioned why the board would consider restricting general fund dollars again when previous actions to do so created an operating deficit. The estimated cost of a new high school is about $50 million, but the BG-1 has budgeted about $36 million for the project. The board will need to restrict general fund dollars in order to bolster its bonding capacity to pay for a complete high school, according to estimates from its bonding agent. Earlier, the board did not approve a capital funds request for the purchase of new school buses ($325,789) and other projects by a 3 to 2 vote (Bradley and Springate voted yes). Those dollars were moved to the building fund in the 2019-20 budget and needed to be returned to the general fund to make the purchases, Chief Operating Officer Amy Smith said. The board voted 4 to 1 in opposition to Springate’s motion to use general fund dollars for staff raises if action’s taken to restrict additional dollars. In explaining her opposition, Richardson said, “We need to be straightforward with the public about what we’re going do with the money – no ifs, ands or buts about it. It’s either a raise for our teachers or it’s for a new (high) school.” The board voted unanimously to schedule a virtual forum on Tuesday, July 7, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., to get more public input on funding options for a new high school. Google Meets will allow up to 250 people to participate and speak, with others able to watch on Facebook Live. 2020-21 budget The board approved a 2020-21 tentative budget, with a flat property tax rate that will generate the same revenue as last year. The vote was 4 to 1, with Debby Edelen voting no and voicing concern about the cumulative financial effect if the board doesn’t approve a tax rate in late-August or early-September that generates 4 percent more local revenue. Schools Superintendent Scott Hawkins recommended the board approve a tentative budget with the same tax rate because of the financial hardships facing families in the face of a pandemic. Springate voted for the budget with a flat tax rate after voicing concern that the board may restrict additional revenue generated by a 4 percent hike to pay for a new high school. She said it’s also important to consider the economic hardships facing people. “I would find it impossible to do a new tax for our citizens right now when we have the money that we could use for our expenses, but we’re restricting that for a new high school,” she said. Next school year School administrators have been exploring three options for a return to school, and came away questioning the logistics of implementing an alternating schedule for students, said Hawkins. Scheduling, transportation and placing a burden on families in terms of childcare were issues related to an alternating schedule, he said, so administrators looked at running two instructional systems simultaneously. Some students would learn at home while others would learn in a classroom, creating a challenging situation for educators, Hawkins said. That would likely force the district to employ additional staff because one teacher could not feasibly run both educational models, he said. A third option is returning to an all-virtual model, but with adjustments from this spring “to make it as much like a normal classroom as we can make it,” Hawkins said. Hawkins said he recently toured the schools with Woodford County Public Health Director Cassie Prather to get a sense of how many students could be in a classroom while following social distancing guidelines, and determined that number would range from 12 to 18 students. In terms of bus transportation, districts have now been given guidance that two students can sit on one seat as long as they are wearing masks, Hawkins said. That will reduce the need for multiple runs, but will also create a need for a monitor of every bus, he said. Currently, he said only about half of the buses have a monitor. Other areas of focus for in-person instruction include regular hand washing, sanitizing surfaces and temperature checks for students each day, Hawkins said. “This is going to be a local decision in terms of how we re-enter school. But it will be based on following the guidelines that are in place.” He said there’s a cost to implementing these and other safety precautions, such as purchasing specialized thermometers (that can take a student’s temperature quickly) at a cost of around $2,000 each. To pay those additional costs, the board voted unanimously to supplement its federal CARES funding (about $500,000) with $240,000 previously budgeted for programs, including Woodford READS and summer enrichment, and operations. A recent survey of parents revealed about 7 percent would not send their children back to school and nearly 37 percent said depending on the circumstances, they may not send their children back to school, Hawkins said. Of the parents who responded “it depends” – an overwhelming number cited a requirement that students must wear masks as the reason why they would not send their children back to school, he said. Hawkins noted students will be required to wear masks as long as they are physically able to do so and don’t have a medical condition that prevents it. And he acknowledged the challenges of making sure younger students are wearing masks and are socially-distanced from their peers. Seventy-five percent of the more than 1,600 responses to the survey said they wanted as much in-person instruction as possible, he said. Overall, pending additional guidance from state and health officials, Hawkins said he cannot say when school will start and how instruction will be delivered. He also pointed out that public education is essential for the economy because many parents would not be able to work if schools are not open. In a related matter, the board voted unanimously to resume limited athletic and other co-curricular activities, including band. All activities will involve groups of 10 or fewer students and follow social distancing guidelines, with most being outdoors and focused on conditioning, Hawkins said. The activities will allow students to get back with teammates and coaches, which will benefit their social and emotional well-being, he said. All plans for activities must be approved by the health department, he added.