BOE's $30 million request delayed by commission

By Lesley Jenkins
Star Staff
ljenkins@starhq.com

   Do not pass "go". Do not collect $30 million.
   The Carter County Board of Education is persevering in its quest to build two brand new schools and renovate two others in the county.
   School Board members met with Carter County Commissioners on Monday to request the county's help in funding $30 million for the whole project. In the midst of a lawsuit against the county for the overcrowded Carter County Jail, commissioners are a little reluctant to hand over the dough, even if it is for the well-being of the county's children.
   The project requests $11,150,000 for a new K-8 school in Valley Forge, $12,075,000 for a new middle school in the Stoney Creek area; a new 1,200 seat gymnasium for Unaka High School costing $3,270,000, and more classrooms and a new gymnasium at Cloudland Elementary for $3,560,000 to move the seventh and eighth grade students from Cloudand High School.
   BOE members explained the need for each project and the conclusion of a two-year comprehensive study, compiled by Tony Street, architect for Beesom, Lusk and Street. He said that, when Cloudland Elementary was first constructed, $400,000 was cut from the original design to stay within budget. It was not financially possible to construct enough classrooms for the middle school grades at that time. Fortunately, the building was designed for expansion in the coming years, which the school board hopes to embark on soon if the commission agrees to fund the project.
   "Stoney Creek has been promised to be the next project for the last 15 years. It was on the table when Hampton was built. We felt like the best possible use of money is to build a middle school up there. Get rid of these temporary classrooms and get these kids in permanent structures," School Board Chairman Daniel Holder said.
   Some commissioners questioned the comprehensive study by Street. Commissioner Al Meehan motioned to require the BOE "to engage the services of an independent outside firm." The motion requested a written study with projections of student populations for each district, student populations over the next 15 years, a focus on the U.S. Census Bureau information, regional population shifts, and benefits or liabilities of consolidating present school facilities.
   Street told the full court that a study of this magnitude from an independent company would likely cost more than $30,000. Meehan's motion was tabled by a vote of 17-7.
   Commissioner Jack Buckles said, "This commission - seems like in the past two years, we don't feel good about something until we do a sixty thousand to seventy thousand-dollar study on it. Somebody comes in here and studies it and then we go on and do it. That makes us feel better when we go on and spend all this money. That's fine.
   "Use a little bit of judgment here. Stoney creek is in dire need of a school. It don't take no sixty thousand or seventy thousand-dollar study to tell me Stoney Creek needs a school. You can drive up there and go in all three schools and see for yourself.
   "We have portable classrooms that have been there years on top of years. They were there when I was in kindergarten," Buckles said.
   Jason Cody, county finance director, said to fully fund the $30 million project with a property tax increase could add 70 cents onto the county's $2.20 current property tax. Another option would be to implement a wheel tax. To fully fund the project with a wheel tax, Cody said, for the 12-year term, would cost $67 per car.
   Another option is a combination of a property tax increase and a wheel tax. Each penny added in property taxes would equal $1 that the wheel tax would drop, Cody said.
   Commissioners sent the item to the Budget Committe to study it further. A joint meeting with the Budget, Education Committee and School Board members was set for May 6 at 6 p.m.
   County Attorney George Dugger informed commissioners of the three ways a wheel tax could be implemented in Carter County. The first would require that the full court pass a private act, ratifying it with a two thirds vote and then sending the private act to legislature for approval. However, this is not an option with the current representative who has informed the commission he will not take private acts to the legislature, according to County Mayor Dale Fair.
   The second alternative is to pass the motion in two seperate regular commission meetings with 16 votes. Citizens can file a petition with the county's election office for a referendum with 10 percent of the votes from the previous governor's election.
   The third option is for the commission to have a referendum by private act.
   Buckles added later, "I want to thank the school board for doing what they were supposed to do. It is up to us to find out how to fund it. I believe it is time for the commission to bite the bullet and quit passing the buck to the buck on down to the next year.
   "Sending it back to the school board is a slap in the face. They have studied it for two years and now it is on us. We need to decide what we can do, if anything, and how we can fund it."
   Holder said, "I know that every family doesn't have one kid. We have 6,000 kids in the Carter County school system. That is 12,000 taxpaying parents. They have all got grandparents--that's 24,000. That's 36,000 people that are greatly affected by these 6,000 students. The very people that are paying these taxes are the ones that are receiving the benefits of the schools."