Wise supervisors cool to costly school plans

Stephen Igo • Mar 5, 2007 at 11:21 AM

WISE - Preliminary cost projections of nearly $109.5 million to renovate Wise County's six high schools received a chilly reception during Thursday's workshop session of the Wise County Board of Supervisors.

Four architectural firms submitted preliminary design recommendations to upgrade the six schools to 21st century standards, including major renovations and new additions.

Preliminary cost estimates were also presented to the Wise County School Board on Tuesday that projected a $30 million renovation for J.J. Kelly High School in Wise, $16 million for Pound High School, $17.8 million for Coeburn High School, $19.9 million at Powell Valley High School in Big Stone Gap, $18.6 million at Appalachia High School, and $7.2 million at St. Paul High School.

Reaction from a number of public officials since the renovations price tag was revealed on Tuesday has not been kind. Supervisor John Peace II on Wednesday called the preliminary cost estimates a "fiscal Fantasyland" and hadn't warmed to the notion any better on Thursday. However, Peace targeted other aspects of the school division's spending habits, adding to next week's action agenda a proposed ordinance to compel the school system to divulge how it spends $15 million in annual Wise County taxpayer money.

Peace wants to move from resolution to ordinance a "category" finance report from the school division to detail spending of local tax dollars for each of the eight segments of the school system's budget, such as administration, instruction, transportation, etc. Peace said he has tried to get that information for a year and hasn't had any luck, and making it a law should get better results than his repeated requests, including filing a Freedom of Information Act notice that apparently yielded him little more than frustration.

Tacoma Supervisor Robby Robbins, meanwhile, said he "can't support $109 million or anything close to that." He said the school board "has a ‘needs list' and a ‘wants list.'" Robbins said he suspects the needs list is "far smaller" than the wants list, and the school division shouldn't consider sending supervisors the wants list.

"I think it's time for the school system to improvise funding the renovations without causing taxpayers any anguish," Robbins said. "I'm very disappointed. Very disappointed with the (renovations proposals) process."

Appalachia Supervisor Fred Luntsford Jr. said the Board of Supervisors "took special measures" last year to make a special project proposals program available to entities such as the school board, and was "surprised and disappointed" the school division did not avail itself of the Public-Private Educational Facilities Act (PPEA).

That program enables a government entity to solicit proposals for proposed projects, such as school renovations or to build new schools, at no cost. If a school division likes a proposal, it can contract with the company and hasn't paid for preliminary design work. The preliminary designs and recommendations submitted by the four architectural firms for the six-school renovations proposal averaged about $60,000 each.

Peace said another aspect of the PPEA he likes is once a contract is signed on a project, no change orders - generally meaning additional costs - are allowed.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Ronnie Shortt reminded that the proposals and cost estimates are preliminary but acknowledged that $109 million "is a great big number." He said elected officials and citizens need to keep in mind doing all that is possible to provide the best education for the children, "and at the same time be good stewards of the taxpayers' money."

Shortt said supervisors weren't "firing shots at anyone" but were being good stewards of tax dollars.

Two citizens also addressed the issue at the workshop.

Clarence "Rusty" Peters of Crystal Lane near Wise said he figured property taxes would have to go up to pay for renovations, "but I don't want them to triple or quadruple."

Supervisors should expect their phones to "ring off the hook, and your ears are going to burn" as irate taxpayers unleash their wrath over the issue, he said.

Peters was also concerned about a 30-year debt of huge proportions.

"We shouldn't leave that sort of legacy for our kids," he said.

Wilma Stallard of Wise said there were 700 out-of-county students attending Wise County schools tuition-free, thus subsidized by Wise County taxpayers.

"As we have tried to tell everyone for the last year and a half, we cannot afford these renovations," she said. "We don't need six high schools."

Stallard said she hoped the projected cost estimate will serve to wake up Wise Countians to seek other options to provide a "better curriculum and quality of education" than investing heavily to maintain the status quo of six aged and inadequate high school facilities for another 30 years or longer.

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