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Macon likely to approve $40 million in school projects

By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer

Macon County commissioners spoke in favor of committing nearly $40 million to fund school construction at their meeting Nov. 26 but stopped short of taking any formal vote on the projects.

Commissioners expressed support for the plans despite coming under fire during the public hearing portion of the meeting for financing the purchase of 29 acres of land for $2.6 million that will be the home to the county’s new grades five and six school.

Don Swanson was one of the few who questioned the county’s motives for financing the land purchase instead of just paying for it outright from reserves.

“Why don’t you just write a check for it?” he said. “Why incur more debt?”

Swanson suggested that the county use money from its fund balance to pay for the land. Macon County currently has a fund balance of $15.4 million. But a county policy only allows commissioners to withdraw no more than 25 percent from its reserve. That policy leaves the commissioners with the ability to spend $3.4 million, according to Macon County Finance Director Evelyn Southard.

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Only four speakers addressed the board during the hearing, and Chairman Charlie Leatherman kept speakers focused on the subject.

“Stay on the point of the public hearing,” he told several speakers.

The commissioners are back to the drawing board since voters rejected a $42 million bond referendum for school construction that appeared on the Nov. 6 ballot. The bond would have allowed the county to build two new schools, one to serve students in grade K-4 and another to serve students in grades five and six. If the bond had passed, the county would have been able to fund the project through a low-interest loan.

But a small margin of voters rejected this idea, which now has county officials scrambling to find ways to fund the school system’s needs.

In addition to the bond referendum, voters also rejected the implementation of a 0.4 percent tax levy on all real estate transactions. County officials planned on using the money generated from the tax — an estimated $2.5 million a year — to pay for the school projects.

In addition to the school bond, voters defeated financing plans for a new senior center, a multi-million recreation complex, a Southwestern Community College building and a new library in Highlands.

Leatherman blamed the school bond’s defeat on voters in the Highlands area, where the bond was rejected by a large percentage of voters.

“The Highlands district has the newest schools, the newest gym, they have what they want, but what about the rest of the county?”

Leatherman said that only 30 percent of the registered voter in Macon County cast their ballots on Nov. 6. Since such a small portion of voters determined the outcome, county officials are working on other plans to insure that the new school projects come to fruition.

“I support our children because they are the future of Macon County,” Leatherman said.

“This vote that went out didn’t send out a strong message,” Leatherman said. “The bond would have kept the property taxes low.”

“You might have said no to the school bond referendum, but this board has not said no to the school system. I for one will proceed to see the needs are meet for Macon County students,” Leatherman said.

Commissioner Jim Davis also supports the school projects. He said the bond failed because the board of education violated state campaign finance laws. The school board’s actions became a subject of scrutiny by state and county officials when it advocated for the passing of the bond by placing billboards and yard signs with the phrase ‘vote yes for children.’ Davis said this mistake harmed the bond referendum’s chances.

“I believe the board of education screwed up,” he said. “It was an innocent mistake, but it was a mistake.”

Regardless of the school district’s errors, Davis sees the need for new school facilities.

“I am committed to doing this,” he said. “It’s a critical need that we have to address.”


Construction plans

Macon County Schools Superintendent Dan Brigman presented commissioners with the school district’s prioritized needs.

The most pressing need is completing renovations to East Franklin Elementary School, he said.

At the Nov. 13 commissioners meeting, the board decided to seek a $2 million loan for two new classrooms at East Franklin. But plans also call for the construction of three classrooms and a new gym, which has a price tag of $4.9 million. A funding plan for this portion of the project has yet to be developed.

Building the proposed grades five and six school is the second priority for the school district. That school is projected to cost $16.2 million.

“ Macon Middle School is in a stressful situation,” Brigman said. “Once the 5-6 school is built it will open up capacity and reduce school size”

The county has already placed a down payment of $200,000 for the land along Clarks Chapel Road. Commissioners unanimously approved a 15-year loan agreement with BB&T for the financing of this piece of land at Monday’s meeting. Over the next 15 years the county will pay $743,806 in interest for the land, making the total cost $3,346,706.

The school district’s next priority is building the proposed K-4 school in north Macon, which is expected to cost $14.9 million. Once the county builds this facility, the district will no longer need portable classrooms, Brigman told commissioners.

But before construction can begin on any of the projects, commissioners need to have the money in hand, which might delay construction until sometime after January.

Macon County has already borrowed almost $10 million this year. The county can take a loan out for additional funding now, but will be paying a higher interest rate, Southard said. If the county waits until January it will be able to finance another $10 million at a lower rate.

But the increase in construction prices has school officials pushing for the construction to begin as soon as possible.

“If we are going to build the 5-6 school first, I’d like to see the grading start as soon as possible,” Macon County School Board Chairman Donnie Edwards said. “I think the board’s position is we have waited a long time and we need to get started on this thing. Our needs are not going to go away.”

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