Six years ago, when the school board voted to renovate and build all these school buildings, I cautioned against doing this all at one time because it would result in severe financial consequences that Superintendent Dr. Lee D'Andrea and the 2006 school board did not foresee at the time.
The latest on the building program debate.
One such consequence is now apparent -- the building program is sucking up huge amounts of money, and other parts of the budget are under financial strain because of it.
At this point, the buildings are built. Iím not arguing building them or building all of them at the same time was a mistake. That argument was made and lost in 2006.
My point is, we need to accept the financing and running of these buildings is costly; that cost is continuing to rise and that leaves less money for everything else beit regular employee pay raises, classroom needs or coaches' supplements.
Annual Cost Of The Building Program:
When the notion of a county-wide school building program was introduced in 2005, the plan had a $158 million price tag. Since then, the board approved eight increases in the program, so the cost now sits at $377.8 million. The money was borrowed. As a result, the districtís annual bond payment rose $17 million (from $8 million to $25 million).
Additionally, it is costing more to staff, run, clean and repair this extra square footage. Thus far, utility costs have risen $955,000; $250,000 more is being spent on maintenance personnel; another $450,000 to run and staff the extra school (Chastain Road); and property insurance costs have risen about $300,000 as the district has added more and more square footage. Adding that up, so far it is costing $2 million more a year in staffing and maintenance.
Next year the district will add a second middle school in Easley (J. C. Brice) and that school will cost an additional $1 million a year to run and staff. A bigger Pickens Middle will come on line too. When the building warranties of the new schools run out, repair costs will rise at the 7 new school buildings.
When all the extra costs are fully absorbed into the budget, it will cost more than $3 million a year to operate the 900,000 extra square feet the building program is adding. Summing the bigger debt payment ($17 million) and higher building costs ($3 million), thatís an extra $20 million a year in building costs. Thatís a huge financial hit to the school district.
Couple that with the weaker tax revenue caused by the economic downturn (the Great Recession), and there is not lot of extra money for everything else.
Donít forget, the district is also dealing with inflation in medical costs (about 8% to 10% a year) and things like retirement costs which are going up at about the same rate. Those and other rising costs are also eating into the budget.
Raise Tax Rates:
Some have said, just raise property tax rates. Well, tax rates were raised 39 mills in 2007, 2 mills in 2010 and another 2 mills in 2011. How much more of a burden does the district want to put on businesses and individuals in this county? Tax rates are already too high.
Only one of the six trustees on the board right now voted for the building program. Yet, this is the weight that hangs over every financial decision the board and the district face. I think the board is continuing to work through this, doing its best with budget management, but given the slow economic recovery, it is going to take a while to dig our way out from under this financial rock.