The building program started off terribly by going around the voters/ passing the Greenville Plan, and then the Dr. Lee D’Andrea administration not know what it was doing when it came to building construction and renovation. Millions were wasted on drawing and redrawing plans, to flying board members and administrators around the country to look at school designs to over paying when it came to land purchases.
The building program was poorly run in 2007 and 2008. By early 2009 it was about $95 million in the red.
I said this a million times and will say it again, if it wasn’t for Building Director Bob Folkman, Superintendent Mendel Stewart, Chairman Jim Shelton and Superintendent Henry Hunt, the building program would have blown up into a thousand pieces. They saved the building program. The building program was well run from early 2009 to late 2012.
Unfortunately the end of the building program — the two middle schools in Easley -- ended as badly as the program began.
Back To The Beginning:
When the Pickens County School Building Program was passed in 2006, the plan was to have one middle school in Easley -- take the old high school and convert it into the middle school. This was formulated and passed by Easley trustees Kevin Kay, Shirley Jones, Jim Brice and the Clemson trustees BJ Skelton, June Hay and Herb Cooper. The Liberty, Pickens and Dacusville trustees did not vote for the building program.
That renovation of the middle school was initially allocated $18.1 million. As the overall building program grew in the following months, the budget for the middle school grew to $20.9 million.
A few years later, in October 2010, a second middle school was added to the building program in a 7 to 1 vote. I voted against it because it raised the size of the building program again, and raised taxes again for buildings.
The total budget for the two schools was raised to $25.3 million -- $13.55 million for the old high school, first called Brice Middle, and now is new Gettys and $12.7 million for the old Gettys on Stewart Drive. Due to reasons described below, the estimated cost to renovate both schools grew to more than $32 million or $6 million above budget in May of 2013.
Upon hearing the scope of the projects grew to $32 million, in May 2013 the school board voted to go back to the original plan of one middle school in Easley, converting the old high school to the middle school.
I had four reasons why I voted to go back to the original plan of one middle school in Easley.
Remember, in October 2010 I voted against adding the second middle school to the original plan, so going back to the original plan of just one middle school made sense to me.
When the idea of a county-wide building program was first introduced more than ten years ago, the initial cost estimate was $158 million. That figure was increased numerous times as plans were passed and expanded to $178 million, $197 million (referendum), $315 (Dr. D’Andrea’s initial plan), $336 (par value of the bonds), $354 (how much was borrowed at auction), $365 (some new borrowing, and to plug a deficit), $374 (second middle school added in Easley), to $377.8 million (miscellaneous items) and finally $387.3 million. You can look at the final building program financial statement, and see the cost ended up at $387,359,816.09.
(I voted against every one of those increases because I knew where it was heading… to another increase.)
School property tax rates were raised more than 40 mills and more than $364 million was borrowed in total. The district’s debt level grew to seven times that of Oconee County schools. Much more than that of all the school districts in Anderson County combined. I know it is about giving the children better school buildings, but at some point you have to consider how much debt you are putting the children in to “give” them all these things.
Given the way the two middle school renovation designs were expanding, to renovate the two schools would have required the school board to spend at least $6 million more. I could not support expanding the building program; it was already too big.
The school district’s buildings costs were staggering. The annual bond payment was $26 million at the time. It was costing $12 million to run, clean, and maintain on a day to day basis all these new and renovated schools. The district face also facing spending $5 million a year on roof and HVAC replacements, repaving and painting schedules. All these buildings, all at one time, were taking more than $40 million about of the district’s coffers. As a result everything else in the budget was being squeezed.
I thought with 25% of our students not reading at grade level, our limited funds must be devoted to the classroom, not an additional school building. The second middle school in Easley would have cost another $700,000 to run each year. Annual funding the district did not have.
Many parents whose children were slated to attend the old Gettys Middle (East End, Crosswell, McKissick Elementary students), emailed board members for two years in opposition to the second middle school because they felt their school would be second rate to the new Gettys or the converted high school. There was some truth to that. I toured the new Gettys Middle. The 1939 and 1979 buildings were gutted and replaced as new. The ’39 building has 10’ ceilings, 8’ windows and hardwood floors, the campus has a building (not just a wing) devoted to 6th grade and a historic charm, plus a football stadium and auditorium. Far and away it is the best middle school facility in the county.
Why The Cost Over-Runs: New Gettys
Why did the two middle schools get so far off its budget rails? Simply put, both projects had an expansion in scope, above the standard that has been applied throughout the county in other projects.
In the original renovation plan of the old high school (when it was to be the lone middle school in Easley), the 1939 building was to be torn down. It was cheaper to replace than renovate. Some of the most vocal leaders in Easley didn’t like that, and the initial response of the Superintendent, Dr. Henry Hunt, and building director, Bob Folkman, was it was too costly to bring the ’39 building up to code. Not heeding expert advice, leaders in Easley like Mayor Bagwell got on TV and turned up the pressure ignoring all the flashing yellow lights pointing to higher costs. They formed a group, calling themselves the ‘39ers, remember?
Contrast that to what happened with Pickens Middle’s renovation. Many wanted to keep the old Pickens High auditorium for the new middle school. I remember Senator Larry Martin asking me about it. That request was made to the district administration, and the response was it was too costly to bring the auditorium up to code. We all accepted the administration’s decisions, and nothing else was said about it.
Back to the old Easley High School conversion to the middle school, after public pressure the administration came up with an option to keep the ‘39 building that the administration said should cost no more money. This design was called Option 6 and had a budgeted figure for the school of $13.55 million -- the same amount as the original plan that tore down the 1939 building. Having our doubts, board members passed Option 6 with the caveat, if the administrations and the leaders of Easley want to keep the ‘39 building, fine, but don’t come running back to the board if it ends up costing more. All were OK with that and the board passed the modified plan.
Additionally, under Option 6 the 1979 building was to receive a standard or light renovation costing about $65 per sqf. In the final design, the 1979 building was upgraded to a heavy renovation -- totally gutted and replaced as new (another expansion in the scope of the plan).
Lo and behold, the new Gettys with the 1939 building came in $2 million over budget, and that money had to come out of the budget for the two schools.
Why The Cost Over-Runs: Old Gettys
In October 2010 a second middle school was added in Easley and the board authorized $12.7 million to be spent on that school, the old Gettys Middle.
Still on the drawing board, the old Gettys was growing fatter and fatter with each passing month. This is how the project ended up with a cost estimate $4 million above budget and that blew up the two middle schools idea. Too many individuals, from board members to community leaders to PTA leaders, who knew nothing about construction and how to manage a building budget, lobbied for above standard items to be put into the old Gettys and more and more items were added to the project.
For instance, upon the insistence of the chairman of the board/ the Easley trustee, Judy Edwards, $2.3 million was added to old Getty’s plan just to make the front of the school look better. We can’t have the new Gettys so nice and the second middle school not, I remember hearing. No other renovated school in the county got such a complete cosmetic facelift.
Above standard renovations were demanded in various other places throughout the school (more expansion in scope). By the time the plan for the old Gettys was put out for bid, it was stuffed to the brim and the estimated cost of renovation was $4 million over-budget. Upon hearing this, I said to the Easley trustee, it looks like you are going to have to cut it back to the budgeted amount. Trustee Edwards opposed that and pressed to have more money spent on the second middle school too. She then lobbied parents to call board members for the same.
Bob Folkman tried to reign-in these costs to keep the two schools on budget, but Superintendent Dr. Pew didn’t back him, and it was off to the races with too many fingers in the design pie. Dr. Pew was very strong in personnel and curriculum management, but buildings, in my opinion, she either wasn’t paying attention or willfully ignored budget limits.
Why The Cost Over-Runs: Accounting Issues?
There was a lot of talk that money was spent twice or accounting was very sloppy. Neither proved to be the case. All this was tracked down. For example, let’s say the building director contracts to replace a roof for $1 million. At this point, the work is not yet done, and the bill not yet paid, but the money is committed to be spent. One million of building program money is set aside as if it was already spent, so it will not be spent a second time on something else. This set aside is called an encumbrance.
Some of the encumbrances were on the books for a year. In some of those instances, the work was done, but the encumbrance was still on the books, rightfully so because the contractor had not been paid yet. Accurate accounting. In other cases, the work was done and the contractor was paid, but the encumbrance wasn’t zeroed-out. Inaccurate accounting.
In the latter case there is a chance that money could be spent twice. When all the encumbrances were examined only about $40,000 was spent twice. Clearly it was a mistake, but in the context of the $25.3 million project, a small mistake.
We also had the external auditor look at the building program books and he found no problems. His report said he “did not find any evidence of fraudulent activity… the general ledger appears to continue to be accurate and reliable… good job to complete this building program with the small contingency that was budgeted.”
In sum, the budgeted cost of two middle schools rose more than $6 million over budget due to excessive wants and spending.
Kevin Kay’s Comments:
Kevin Kay, former school board member from Easley, expressed he was upset the school board was going back to the original plan of one middle school in Easley. He was vocal about this in the newspapers at the time.
Those who formulated and passed the building program in 2006 were the trustees from the Easley and Clemson attendance zones. Kevin Kay was one of the board trustees who formulated and approved the building program to have one middle school in Easley.
At the time Kay and the others were insistent on all new high schools. The high schools cost from $45 to $60 million each, and sucked up most of the building plan money. The middle and elementary schools received disproportionately less.
Thirty percent of total enrollment goes to the high schools (4,900 high school students of the 16,300). Yet, 64% of building money was spent on high schools. If you throw in the career center, a specialty high school, nearly 70% of the money went to high schools.
All the trustees saw the FJ Clark, CCC and the citizens’ buildings studies that stated the middle schools were in greatest need, yet they formulated a high school dominated building program and the six of them passed it. If they wanted a second middle school in Easley, they should have included it in the initial plan. Again, in their minds, it was all about getting new high schools.
Judy Edward’s Comments:
Edwards said in one of the local newspapers, the board is going to have to take responsibility for the building program being short money. What? I thought. The board authorized $13.55 million be spent on the new Gettys and the $12.7 million on the old Gettys. It was the job of the administration to make sure those budget figures were heeded. It wasn’t until the new Gettys was $2 million over budget, and old Gettys’ drawing board costs were $4 million over budget, was the board told by the Pew administration the budget was busted. That was in May of 2013.
As explained above, the lion share of the over run was due to excessive wants. I saw it on my own eyes during a tour of the old Gettys given mostly by Judy Edwards and the principal. I saw how Edwards was pushing for more here and more there and above standard for this and that. Not just input, but insistence trying to use her position as board chairman to broaden the design of the school. I later realized her effort was successful, growing the plan by $4 million.
I think Edwards was banking on the rest of the board then coming up with the money. When every other board member balked at the budget busting excess and didn’t bail out what had become her pet project, her strategy blew up. Trustees that voted to add the second middle school, having seen what went one, later voted to shut down the plan of two middle schools.
Edwards then started blaming everyone from Bob Folkman to the school board. She needs to take responsibility for meddling in the old Gettys design (playing building manager), running up its cost and misjudging the board.
Easley Not Treated Unfairly:
Some of the leaders in Easley said their area wasn’t treated fairly in the building program. I agree Easley didn’t get a proportional amount of the building program money based on its enrollment. The aim wasn’t to give each area the same per-pupil amount of money. The aim was to address the buildings based on the greatest need. However, it doesn’t mean Easley was not treated fairly. Let me explain.
In 2006, Easley’s need was less than other areas of the county like Liberty. Just before the building program, in 2003-04, four of Easley’s five elementary schools were renovated when no other schools in the county were getting any renovation money. For instance, in 2004, East End Elementary was rebuilt from the ground up. So when the building program started in 2006, East End received only $640,000 of building program money. The school didn’t need it: it was a practically new school.
McKissick Elementary was the one elementary school in Easley that wasn’t renovated in 2003-04. It received a $6.2 million renovation in the building program. That was a large amount of money given the elementary school that got the second most renovation money (Holly Springs) received $3.1 million.
Liberty schools, for instance, received a disproportionate amount of building program money (21% of building money, but only 14% of total enrollment), but Liberty had the greatest need going into the building program because the last time any of its schools had work done was in 1998 (minor work done at Liberty Elementary). Liberty Middle hadn’t had any work since 1967 and by far was the school considered to be in the worst condition in the county.
Easley’s Enrollment Is Rising?
Another argument during this debate was Easley is growing and needs two middle schools. While Easley is growing in terms of population, the notion school enrollment is growing is untrue. Ten years go the 45-day average daily membership at Gettys Middle was 1,383. Gettys enrollment is about 1,300. There is no growth.
The Construction/ Renovation Process:
The way the construction/ renovation process worked for a school was as follows:
One, the board voted to authorizes a school to be renovated and it sets a budget amount for the school. Two, the administration created a renovation design for that school within that budget. Three, the design was then presented to the board and approved. Four, the administration is responsible for building the design as specified by the board and within the budget the board approved it.
Within steps two (design) and four (implementation) responsibility sits primarily with the building director, with direct oversight by the superintendent. The board has some high flying oversight there, but its primary job is in steps one (school and budget amount approval) and three (design approval).
New Gettys $2 Million Over:
With the new Gettys, there were flaws in step two (design), step three (design approval) and step four (implementation).
During step two (design) the administration expanded the project by keeping the 1939 building and saying it could be done within the approved budget. When the new plan to keep the 1939 building was put to a vote, I and other board members asked, will this cost more? The Hunt administration said it would not cost more. The administration was too optimistic, bending to the political pressure of the Easley community.
The board voted for it, trusting the administration and gave the Easley community what it wanted. We voted for it with a caveat. We said to the administration and the Easley leaders if turns out to cost more, we are not going to give you more money. The money is going to come out of the budgets of the two schools. Are you sure you want this? They said would be OK with it.
In hindsight, the board deserves blame too — step three (design approval). We should have been smart enough to know the administration was bending the numbers to the political pressure. We should have also known if keeping the 1939 building cost more, the Easley leaders weren’t going to be Ok with it, but would then scream for more money. And that is what they later did. The board should have rejected the administration’s plan to keep the 1939 building right off the bat and stuck to the original plan.
The leaders of the ‘39ers have responsibility too. They were the drivers of the budget busting bus. First, they should have respected the administration’s initial plan and budget figures. They didn’t. Like I mentioned, we had a similar issue in Pickens, and we didn’t push like that. Second, they were told by many board members, if keeping the 1939 building escalates the costs, don’t expect more money. The leaders said, OK.
The scope of the 1979 building was expanded from a light to heavy renovation and the board didn’t see that until it was done. This was a breakdown in step four (implementation by the administration).
These factors plus some others caused the old high school to middle school renovation to run $2 million above the budgeted figure of $13.55 million
Old Gettys $4 Million Over:
Looking at the second middle school or the old Gettys, the board approved a $12.7 million budget (step one) and the board was waiting for the administration to come up with a renovation design. During that design process (step two), while the ball was in the hands of the Pew administration, all sorts of things were added to the design, so the cost rose $4 million above the budget. The administration allowed too many fingers to get in the design pie for the old Gettys renovation.
At the July 11th, 2013 meeting, the administration presented five options that included one or two middle schools. I focused on the two middle school option as approved by the board in October 2010. The administration was directed to come back to the board with a design within the $25.3 million budget. Loads of things were added so the cost presented to the board was $32 million in May 2013 and $35 million in July 2013. Ineffective budget implementation (step four).
In the past, the way the design process worked was the building director met with the principal and key parts of the school’s staff. Needs were identified. The director, under the watchful eyes of the superintendent, created the design relying on the school’s input, using the renovation standard applied throughout the county, against the budget amount that was approved by the board. Most things the principal wanted were put into the design. Things above standard or that busted the budget, were left out. A renovation plan was put forth to the board and then approved (step three).
The building director having the final say, and the superintendent supporting his final decisions was the primary budgetary control mechanism in the design phase. Principals not pushing their point of view to the nth degree and local leaders not using their political clout to get this or that for their favorite school also helped keep designs within budget. Individual board members not meddling in design plans kept each project on its budget rails too. This worked for the school projects up to that point.
The chairman of the board, Judy Edwards, was too involved in the design of the old Gettys (Stewart Drive). She called two special meetings of the board to tour the old Gettys. The purpose was to pitch her ideas for spending more on the school. I was surprised to see the principal leading the meeting/ tour, with Trustee Edwards providing color commentary. The building director, Bob Folkman followed along quietly. Not in any other area of the county did such tours occur.
The second tour, I think only two board members showed up (Edwards and someone else), because most of the rest of the trustees had enough. There was nothing new, just another sales pitch for busting the budget. She called special work sessions just for these two schools. Numerous votes and re-votes were called on the issue. No doubt, she was using her position as chairman to advocate for her area.
Dr. Pew should have backed her building director, like Dr. Hunt did throughout the middle of the building program when it was functioning at its peak. She didn’t and that contributed greatly to the financial blow-up.
The Final Plan:
In May 2013, the board voted 5 to 1 to go back to the one middle school in Easley (Edwards voted against). I credit Ben Trotter, Jimmy Gillespie, Herb Cooper, Jim Shelton and myself for their vote, and the Dr. Pew for making the recommendation. A budget was set and it was busted and the board/ administration didn’t throw more money at what became a broken process.
Like I said above, the initial budget to convert the high school to the middle school was $18.1 million. It crept up to $20.9 million, just after the initial plan was passed. The old high school already had a capacity of 1,500 students so it was just a matter of renovating it, not expanding its capacity.
When the second middle school was cancelled, there was money left over because of the tax hike and the $20.9 million could have covered the one middle school renovation. In a 5 to 1 vote, in July 2013 the board voted to allocate all the extra money to the one middle school or a total of $25.3 million. (I voted against that.) From start to finish this one middle school had a 41% budget expansion over the life of the project. Most of it is due to expansions of the scope of the project.
As the video shows, I argued against pouring ALL the left over money into the new Gettys. Instead, I argued some of the extra money should have gone to the new Gettys, but some should have been used for HVAC and roof replacements that were starting to crop up at other schools, repaving needs too as well as painting schedules.
If the board would have been prudent in how it spent that left over money, it wouldn’t be debating the issue of raising taxes this year for many of those HVAC, roof, repainting needs today.