Much to the county mayor’s chagrin, Rutherford County’s Budget and Finance Committee agreed Thursday night to move forward with the construction of two new middle schools.
The discussion was heated at points as the committee deliberated whether to approve building now at a reduced price, only to pay more in the future for operating costs or to delay building for a year in hopes of an economic rebound.
In the end, the committee decided to move forward with construction in a 5-2 vote with Commissioners Bob Bullen, Joe Frank Jernigan, Will Jordan, Robert Peay and Steve Sandlin voting in favor and Chairwoman Joyce Ealy and Commissioner Doug Shafer against.
The full commission must still approve of moving forward. It will vote on the issue at its monthly meeting next Thursday.
“I’m delighted that they understood the need for these two middle schools and that they understood the potential to save in construction and the low interest rates on the borrowed money,” Rutherford County Schools Superintendent Harry Gill Jr. said.
County Mayor Ernest Burgess urged the committee to delay the construction because the county is facing a budget shortfall this year that won’t clear up until the nation’s economic picture brightens.
Burgess told the committee, even without the additional schools, the county will need an additional 38 cents on the property tax rate to balance the budget in 2010, when the schools are slated to open.
By adding the schools, the county will need to raise an additional $3.7 million per year, Gill said.
Ealy and Shafer both voted against the measure, because they are concerned about the potential impact of a tax hike.
Gill said the schools are needed to “improve the quality of education in Rutherford County” and move more than 3,000 students into classrooms and out of portables.
Because of the downturn in the construction industry, bids for the construction of Buchanan Middle Schools came in $2.6 million less than budgeted. Sewer costs and land preparation were both cheaper, Gill said.
“We presume the same with Dejarnette (middle school),” Gill said. The bids for a new middle school across Dejarnette Lane for Oakland High School are due March 17.
Overall, Gill expects the county to save $5.3 million on construction alone by moving forward now.
County Finance Director Lisa Nolen said there is also an opportunity to save by borrowing money now to build the schools.
“Williamson County just did $50 million at 3.8 percent,” she said.
Rutherford County could get a similar rate on the $68.4 million it needs for the construction of the two middle schools among other projects. If so, the county looks to save over the life of the bonds.
Gill also said it will add around $3.7 million per year to the school system’s budget to run the two new schools and convert Central Middle to a sixth-12th grade magnet school.
He said most teachers are transferred from other schools within the system and most of the added cost is actually in administration.
“The teachers transfer with kids,” he said.
Michelle Willard can be contacted at 615-869-0816 or firstname.lastname@example.org.