After Tuesdays board meeting, there have been many inaccurate and inappropriate comments have been made concerning the decision about CES. Social media has been lively. So many comments have been made that are not founded on fact. I know this because there has yet to be an opportunity for anyone other than the board, superintendent, CFSO and very small number of other people that know all the facts. But, given the severity of some of the comments, it’s time for the facts to be laid on the table.
This board was made aware of the major issues at CES in August, 2017. At that time, there were issues brought to us that were alarming in nature. Some of those issues, according to testimony of many, have been a problem at CES for multiple years. I have been a board member since the election in November 2014. I can assure you that in the time I have served, none of these issues have ever been brought to the board. Not by school administration, not by teachers, not by maintenance and not by our superintendent. I questioned in August why none of these issues have been discussed and corrected. To say I have never been given a real reason why this information was never relayed to the board would be an understatement. I now know for sure that maintenance has been informing the superintendent about these issues. Your guess is as good as mine why the board was left out of that loop of information. Now, in March of 2017, I received a phone call asking me what I knew about the boards plans to build a new CES. The truth was, I knew nothing at all. No one had ever mentioned any plans or thoughts on the subject. I know some are saying “it has been on the capital plan for 3 years” and that sounds very official. However, in 2 of those years, the board had very little input or discussion about the capital plan or anything that was on it. In fact, this year, for the first time since I have served, I had to demand an opportunity to hold a work session to discuss the capital plan and some of the things that were on it. The board was told more than once that the “Capital plan means nothing. It’s just something we turn into the state to let them know we are looking at our schools every year.” I was told that we put things on, take things off, move them around, do things that are on the plan, do things that aren’t on the plan.
This, apparently, has been the practice for many years, predating this administration. This was all in August, 2017. The architectural firm McKee and Associates, along with construction management firm RaLin put together a master plan for every campus in the county. Their proposal included 4 possible solutions for CES. Since that time, the board has made many requests to discuss these proposals in detail in order to make the best and most informed decision. Those requests have fallen on deaf ears. There has been no decision on what a proper solution is because the board has been given no details on any options, including the one proposed Tuesday, even though it involves the board to committing to spend millions in tax payer dollars. Multiple things remain unknown at this very time. For instance, is the cost of the plan proposed at last Tuesday’s meeting a hard number? What is missing from that plan? What might have an effect on the final number? There are issues now at the recently constructed CMS. Have precautions been made to make sure those issues aren’t part of any new plan? And, there were 4 options presented to the board by the professionals. Why has there been no discussion of any of those plans? Why does someone else get to decide what we see and consider and what we don’t see and consider? Why is it wrong to want to consider every option available to us? We are being asked to spend money of great magnitude. It not only warrants full discussion, in detail, it should by its very nature DEMAND full discussion and attention to every detail. It will not be the superintendent, principal, teacher, parent or student signing the tax payers money over. It will be a vote of the board that does that. The job of board member is vitally important in this and many other situations.
We are ultimately the guardian of the tax payers dollars in situations like this. I made a commitment to be an involved board member. I made a commitment to transact business in the open and not behind closed doors. I am telling you all-even though I have asked many times to discuss all options, I have been denied that right and so has the board. And so much misleading information is being put out. For instance, the number “$53 million dollars” was just thrown out there the other night as amount this board could borrow. There was no further explanation given and many people in attendance believed that with that kind of borrowing power, why are we not building a new school. If this board borrowed $53 million, we could just close shop and go home. We couldn’t pay the debt and keep utilities on or teachers hired or buses running properly. Our bond rating would drop. It was poor judgement to use that as an argument in such a heated debate. Another interesting thing happened Tuesday night. New information that could impact the final decision was disclosed. After multiple requests for meetings, numerous texts and emails back and forth, requests on the very day of the meeting to please remove the proposal from the agenda so that we can do our job, this new financial information was NEVER mentioned.
We all heard this information for the first time Tuesday night. But we didn’t hear it during the discussion on whether or not to approve the CES proposal, which would make logical sense. No, we all heard this news at the very end of everything, well after the vote was taken! Wouldn’t everyone think that the board might want to know about that type news? Why couldn’t the opportunity for the board to hear that financial news occur before there was a vote to determine what to do? Why couldn’t a request to postpone the vote, on the very day of the meeting, at least be met with this new “news?” Probably for the same reason this board was not made aware of plans already rolling along and being shared at CES. It is not the way business should ever be conducted. If this board had been approached about developing a plan for CES before anyone else, as should have been the case, I submit to you we would not be having these heated and contentious conversations today. But, that’s behind us now. It’s too late to bring the board in on the beginning of this process. We are, unfortunately, left to work in the aftermath of that decision.
Another thing that was brought up Tuesday night was the boards apparently comfortable ability to borrow the money needed to construct a new CES. We were told that when I requested what the new debt appetite was, that I was given a very comfortable number. Yesterday, I requested clarification from our CFSO about that description. I was informed that the new debt appetite remains at 11-12 million dollar range for the board to continue to maintain things like locally funded units and other locally funded things. In other words, we will be very near the very maximum we can borrow without cutting into things like teacher units and some other locally funded programs. That is not something any of us should take lightly. And, is it fiducially responsible to go into that much debt when other viable options may be present? When do we decide that it is prudent to seek all options available before deciding the most costly one is the correct choice. My point is, with more than one option being proposed to us by two professional firms, we owe it to ourselves, to our citizens and to our future generations to be the very best stewards of our money.
But, let me be clear, no financial decision should be made that does not address the issues brought to the board concerning CES. Any plan approved will have to take care of those. I continue to be shocked that so many consider requesting a chance to look at any option other than “new school” is unacceptable. There could be millions saved in a plan that mixes new construction with renovation. But at this juncture, we do not know the answer to that or many other questions. It is good business to know this information. It is the right thing to do. Then a decision based on sound information, expected results and adequate addressing of issues can be made. And for the record, I talked with the Architect again Wednesday. He assures me that he has at no time said any building at CES is not fit for renovation. I specifically asked him about the 1950’s building and he assured me that, given an opportunity to come up and inspect the building, develop a scope of work and detail the costs, he can give us a solid estimate on the cost to renovate and an estimate to the improved life span of the building. That is just simply good information to know during the course of the process.
One last thing concerning our efforts to discuss this situation: On November 14th I asked once more, at the urging of other board members, for an opportunity to meet and discuss 3 options. I was told that any request to discuss a plan other than the one that has been chosen for us, with no board discussion, would be denied. Again, this is no way to conduct business. Expecting the board to approve a plan that has never been discussed or balanced against any other option is in fact, bad business. We have a fiducial responsibility to the citizens in this county. Financial decisions we make will not only affect the children at the school in question, but every student everywhere in our system. The students affected deserve the detailed discussion and information this vitally important situation requires. The no vote was a result of leaderships refusal to allow proper discussion to take place. Why has due process been denied? I am hopeful that meaningful discussion can occur with the cooperation of system leadership.
I will be requesting another opportunity to do this next week. The architect and construction management team are now and have been ready to come in and give us details and line item costs associated with every plan. They simply need to be asked to do it. So, instead of making social media posts and comments made in passion and anger, won’t you instead encourage system leadership to work with this board in developing a plan? We will address and resolve every issue at CES. But it must start with a commitment from both sides to sit at the table. The board has been and remains committed to doing this. Let’s pray it happens very soon.
I’m Brian Jennings, Board President.