The county school board decided during a called meeting with no public comment, to approve almost $59.3 million in two contracts with J.A. Street & Associates for West Ridge High School. Excavation work is underway under a previously approved contract, part of $10 million already spent toward the school, which will be off Exit 63 of Interstate 81 on Lynn Road.
Board of Education members Mark Ireson and Jane Thomas voted against awarding the nearly $55 million main contract. Ireson also voted against the $4.8 million contract for outdoor athletic facilities, while Thomas abstained. Chairman Michael Hughes, Vice Chairman Randall Jones and members Matthew Spivey, Jerry Greene and Dan Wells voted to award both bids.
Three uniformed sheriff’s deputies attended the meeting.
In today’s election, three board seats are up for grabs: Hughes faces a challenge from Derrick Paduch and Wells from Paul Robinson. Greene is not seeking re-election, but Gee Gee Hillman and Randall Gilmore are vying for that seat. School opponents in the audience predicted Hughes and Wells would lose their seats over the vote.
“We’re jumping into this,” Ireson said of approval of the contract, although the discussions, public input and a facilities study that led to the high school decision date back some six years.
The meeting drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100, many of whom indicated they wanted to speak as at a July 12 meeting on the same subject.
The BOE at the July meeting voted 4-3 to table acceptance of the low bid until a meeting Aug. 1. That vote was on a motion by Ireson, who said he needed more time to study the bid documents.
The bids were opened July 5, which meant a 30-day window to award the bid or seek an extension was about to expire.
Board members voted in the same 4-3 split as the contract votes to reject Ireson’s motion Wednesday to table the decision for another 90 days.
The BOE also opted not to allow public comment. Board policy is for no public comment at called meetings, although the BOE reversed that for the July 12 meeting.
WHY THE NO VOTES?
Ireson, of Colonial Heights, cited what he called uncertainties about potential sinkholes and a cave on the site, as well as potential financial obligations that could drain the system’s fund balance. He handed out a graphic of an anomaly on the site that he said could hold 139 Ford F150 pickups, at a depth of 17 feet on the walls and 27 feet at the deepest point. He also said a speaker during public comment planned to tell that a barn on the site simply sank into the ground in the past.
Ireson said he consulted two local contractors, a local geoservices expert and one from Nashville. However, architect Dineen West said the bidders, including Street, were to address any sinking issues. She added that a cave is in a ridge far from the school footprint and that geoservices engineers are monitoring it.
As for federal finances, Ireson said a local education agency fiscal consultant with the Department of Education’s Office of Local Finance told him on the phone it appeared $1.1 million in federal funding was improperly carried over. However, Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski and Business Manager Ingrid DeLoach, both of whom said they are offended by the idea the school system has mishandled federal money, said that is done only with permission and that the system has to spend the money and then be reimbursed.
DeLoach also said any issue with federal funds would have no bearing whatsoever on $4.8 million in fund balance or reserves going to pay for the outdoor athletic facilities at the new school, pending County Commission approval.
Jones said the federal funding issue was not germane to the school bid discussion, but Ireson said anything that could impact funding of the new school was relevant.
“It may not be anything, but it was concerning to her,” Ireson told reporters after the meeting. He said more than $20 million in potential spending, including more than $15.6 million in Americans with Disabilities improvements in all schools, could leave the school system in a financial hole. Other expenses include sewer issues at Sullivan Gardens K-8, Sullivan East Middle School and Sullivan East High School.
In addition, DeLoach and Rafalowski said multiple audits and compliance exercises have shown no issues with federal funds. Rafalowski after the meeting provided copies of two letters from the Department of Education indicating federal program budgets were complete and complied with requirements. DeLoach said she had already tried to contact state officials during the meeting.
Spivey and others asked why Ireson brought up the issues without any advance notice. Ireson said he just got back from a trip to Wisconsin Monday and got the information within five hours of the Wednesday meeting from an employee of the Department of Education on the financial issues and from a “friend” on the cave and alleged sinkholes.
Thomas, of Bluff City, said she was concerned four potential additional classrooms at the new Sullivan East Middle School are not being built but will be needed for growth in that area, adding she fears needed improvements at East High, to be the only other high school in the county system, will go undone.
WHAT HAPPENED AFTER THE MEETING?
After the meeting and outside the building where it was held, opponents of the school chanted “charter schools,” and Hughes inside talked with a man who said parents would send their children to Washington County or other local school systems instead of the new high school.
“Right now they’re hurt and thy’re angry because the representatives are not listening to them,” Jo-Rita Gragg of Sullivan Gardens said of the crowd gathered outside the building. “We don’t have the money.”