MADISON COUNTY, Ala. - The Madison County Schools Board of Education must make some big decisions on a tight deadline about how to move forward with building a new high school in the Monrovia area.
At a work session Thursday, the board heard information that for some, changed the game and caused board members to question whether they can build the school that was originally planned.
The Possible Problem
WHNT News 19 was the only news camera in the room when Superintendent Matt Massey brought in a construction management consultant, who told the board that the school system's original plan to build a 1600-student capacity high school upwards of 200,000 square feet is "not really economically feasible in this current market condition."
Board members acknowledge it has been more than four years since they created the original agreement, and a lot has changed. The school system's needs are different now, and construction costs have increased since 2013. Consultants estimate them at $190-200 per square foot in the current market.
In a presentation, the consultant said the school system would be capable of funding a 900-student capacity school of 165,000 square feet using its current budget of more than $42 million in BRAC funds.
That plan would not include athletic facilities or an auditorium. He added the 900-student building could include practice fields and two gyms, with full technological capabilities inside, for a price tag just shy of $42 million.
He asked the board members to keep in mind this was a conceptual budget, and that the building could be built with the intent to expand later.
Through the discussion that followed, the board learned from Madison County Schools staff that a school of a smaller size than originally planned would require an extensive re-design. Right now, only 80 percent of the originally-proposed building has been designed.
Board member Dave Weis, who lives in the Monrovia area and would be zoned for the new school under the original plan, said he considers a 900-seat school "inappropriate" to build. He said that as a parent, he would not want his child to go to a school without the proper athletic facilities.
Weis also pointed out that an agreement with the Madison County Commission put the school at 1600 seats, and any changes would be in violation of that agreement.
Nathan Curry said the board needs to be prudent and stay away from building a smaller school in the hopes of adding onto it later.
"I don't think it's a wise decision," he stated. "We can't just say, 'We'll get you a stadium. We'll get you a larger basketball court. If we're going to build it, we need to build it right. We don't need to build it piecemeal or partially. We need to build it the way it should be built.
But others pointed out there are other outstanding expenditures the board needs to consider that weren't of as much concern when the original plan to build a school was drafted.
Board president Angie Bates noted roof repairs needed at New Hope Elementary School and Hazel Green Elementary School. Other repairs are needed at many other schools in the district. Operations staff told the board Thursday that those could not continue to be ignored for much longer.
"In the past, the boards have deferred maintenance in order to build schools," she said. "If we continue to do that we continue to make mistakes, and I don't think that's the route we should be going."
Shere Rucker stated that building the new school is important to many.
Bates responded, "At some point, we do have to regroup and decide whether that's the most fiducially-responsible move to make."
The board discussed many ideas for increasing funding to build the originally-planned school, including closing another building to save costs. They also wondered how many of the repairs can continue to hold.
Some questioned if the school system could hold off building a new school in favor of strengthening the existing buildings. There was also speculation about how the BRAC funds can be used. The school chief financial officer explained that the $43 million in BRAC funds are currently proposed to go to the new school. She said if the district can no longer afford that proposal, they would be allowed to spend it on other capital projects.
At the end, the body determined they would consider any ideas as they look for the right solution. They want to loop in other parties, including the Madison County Commission and attorneys.
There is a tight deadline with which to make these decisions.
The school system needs to have a Five Year Capital Plan for the years 2018-2022 by September 15, Massey said. He is expecting to recommend one to the board at its next meeting on August 24 for a budget hearing.
WHNT News 19 interviewed Bates, who said the board is going to come up with a plan after much more discussion than they had Thursday evening.
"We are determined to make sure we are making good decisions and we aren't afraid to look back and say, 'Hey, we need to look at this again,'" she said.
Bates explained that there is a lot more to this now, than there may have been when the plan was originally put in place in 2013. This is the basis of the board's upcoming decision.
"It's important that we look at, 'Are we going to continue on the path we had been on?' Which is what we had planned to do for a long time and were very committed to that plan. But I think tonight some of us are questioning whether or not that is still the best plan. When we approved that plan, a lot of things were different... There are different financial responsibilities and different questions, along with some things we may not have looked at as well as we probably could have back then. When we were talking about things like being more equitable across the system instead of focusing on one area at a time," she said.
The school system must also make sure it is complying with a federal desegregation order.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on the new school, which still hasn't lifted off the ground. A judge recently told the board to move forward, but they need to all agree on a direction.
"We're at a pivotal point where we either need to start we need to make sure we have a plan to move forward that we can sustain. If we're not going to start, we need to make sure we have the appropriate conversations with the stakeholders that also need to be a part of that discussion."
Bates said the questions that the board needs to answer are whether or not the original plan of a 1600-student school is feasible, and what is the best for the district's kids.
"We do a great job for our children and we need to continue to be able to do that. It's our job that we are continuing to make that possible," she said.
The board needs to approve a capital plan, one way or another.