• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

Questions at forum elicit strong responses from board

Allegations of corruption, personal agendas and a lack of transparency were discussed during Tuesday’s Woodford County Board of Education community forum to get public input on current plans and funding options for a new high school. Vice Chair Dani Bradley was unable to attend the virtual forum, which began with Chair Debby Edelen saying she would read every question from the public “verbatim.” Questions about corruption, personal agendas and a lack of transparency elicited strong responses from board members Allison Richardson and Edelen. “We’re doing it for the kids,” said Edelen of forging ahead with plans for a new high school. “And if that’s a personal agenda, I think we’re all proud” of our motivation. She said her only personal agenda “is to help the kids in this district get the best education possible.” Geri Isaacs submitted a public comment alleging the board’s lack of transparency implies “that you have something to hide about how your decisions (were) influenced,” and “your actions are widely perceived as underhanded and corrupt.” Asked how the board will address those concerns, Edelen said, “This inflammatory rant mailed as a question ... is full of the type of rhetoric that divides us and does not help one child in Woodford County. It’s sad that we’ve come to this.” Edelen said she wouldn’t typically respond to such a remark, “however, I cannot let the charge stand that me or any of my fellow board members has acted in an underhanded or corrupt manner.” She said every decision was made in a public meeting, and board members and their families do not deserve the personal attacks they have faced on social media and beyond. Richardson agreed that board members don’t have personal agendas, aren’t corrupt and have been transparent in their decision-making. When she asked schools Superintendent Scott Hawkins if he or the board is corrupt, he said, “Am I corrupt? No.” While he wouldn’t use the word corrupt to describe the board, “I think there is a concern with some transparency on some decisions,” he said. “I’m just saying I believe that there’s not been full transparency on some decisions.” Edelen described Richardson’s question to Hawkins as “very illuminating ... and it may be at the heart of a lot of things.” Several public submissions questioned the board’s willingness to engage in conversations with the community about plans for a new high school. Longtime board member Ambrose Wilson IV said he could not recall a subject that resulted in more public input and engagement than a new high school. He and Richardson said they’ve talked about the project with their constituents over the last several months. “I think the public has been crying out and begging for the board to have meaningful two-way conversations with them,” Springate said. She said people in the community have told board members time and again that they do not want them to restrict general funds, which pay operating expense like teacher salaries, for a new high school. Richardson argued many of those who are objecting to using general fund dollars live in the same neighborhood and “have taken it upon themselves to force their voice on the entire county.” She said it’s also important to listen to people who can’t come to board meetings. A question from Kandi Neal asking if any board member has received any meals, gifts or tickets to sporting events from anyone with the high school’s project architectural firm, RossTarrant, or fiscal agent Baird, revealed two occasions when board members were taken to lunch. Dani Bradley and Debby Edelen ate lunch at Ricardo’s with project architect Kevin Locke in October 2019. “It cost $57.65 for the four of us. And that was the only instance that I’m aware of that we did anything like that for a Woodford County board member,” Locke said. Baird paid for the lunches of Bradley, Edelen and Wilson, and the financial firm hosted schools Superintendent Scott Hawkins for a golf outing and Wilson for a basketball game, said Edelen, reading Baird’s response. Hawkins said a longtime friend, Barry Anderson, who’s a member of Baird’s team and a former school superintendent, invited him to a golf outing at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville and they’d played together on a number of occasions. “I assumed it was golf with friends,” said Hawkins. “I was shocked when I saw that it had been turned in as a business expense ... because that was never mentioned. We never discussed anything related to our bonding or a project with the district while we played that day.” Hawkins said he did not have lunch, but could not provide an estimate of the cost for the round of golf when questioned by Richardson. Based on the information provided by the two firms during Tuesday’s forum, Springate said, “It doesn’t sound to me like ... any board members did anything improper, or the superintendent did anything improper ...” Prior to forum questions and comments being read, Locke again reviewed three options: a new high school for 1,350 students at an estimated cost of $49.5 million to $54 million, a 1,000-student high school for grades 10 to 12 at a cost of $44.1 million and a renovation of the existing high school with a maximum budget of $35.6 million. The 1,000-student high school would have common areas for 1,350 students and its classroom wings could be expanded to accommodate that many, Locke explained. The district’s current bonding (borrowing) capacity is $47.2 million with $350,000 in the general fund restricted for the project and 80 percent of the capital outlay fund earmarked for a high school, according to estimates from fiscal agent Baird financial services. The district’s bonding capacity is $41.6 million without the $350,000 general fund restriction and $33.6 million with no general fund or capital outlay commitment, according to July estimates from Baird. Springate said it doesn’t make sense to restrict general fund dollars for a 1,000-student high school given the district’s fiscal situation in the midst of a pandemic. Locke pointed out that the actual construction cost for a new high school may be less than estimates based on the lower bids received on the Tates Creek High School project – about 9 percent lower – in what he described as an aggressive bidding environment. So with a cost savings of 6.5 percent, the base bid for a full high school would drop to about $43.5 million, he said. Springate said she was concerned a reduced cost will result in Woodford County getting a lesser high school. “We should get the best school that we can possibly get, and if that means waiting until we have the funding, to me that makes a lot more sense,” she said. After Springate voiced concerns about “value engineering” and other cost-cutting measures, Locke strongly disagreed with her characterization that the district will end up with a second-rate high school – calling it “absolutely ridiculous.”

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