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SPLOST used for new school, upgrades

Editor's Note: This story is a news analysis of how education SPLOST IV funds have been spent. For simplicity, all figures are not exact, but are rounded to the nearest thousand).

The "to do" list was long, and much of it remains three years later.

In 2006, voters approved a 1 percent Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax for:

- the construction of a new junior high school (to be combined with $7 million from SPLOST III designated for that purpose);

- construction of a new Norris Elementary School;

- major improvements to the Brickyard;

- new school buses;

- renovations at other educational facilities;

- music, vocational and athletic equipment;

- safety and security equipment;

- school furnishings and textbooks;

- and system-wide technology upgrades.

The tax -- SPLOST IV -- was to be collected for five years or until $23 million was raised, according to the resolution adopted by the McDuffie County School Board in June 2006. Voters approved the tax in September of that year. On November 9, school board members approved a bid from McKnight Construction to build the new junior high school for $17,010,000.

If things went according to plan, slightly less than $6 million should have been left for the remaining projects on the list, including building a new Norris Elementary School and improvements on the football stadium.

According to notes taken by The McDuffie Mirror during the 2006 meetings, school board members had discussed options of building the new junior high school, including saving money by building only three wings rather than five as originally planned.

Because Hurricane Katrina had just happened, construction costs had escalated, so it was decided to build the entire building before construction costs went up even more.

Board members also approved the use of general obligation bonds for up to $12 million, so the money would be available to start construction on the new school building immediately.

Only $8 million was bonded out, with payments (approximately $2,500,000) due on May 1 of every year until 2012. Groundbreaking for the school was held in December 2006.

As with most construction projects, things didn't go according to plan, and costs for the school exceeded the bid amount by approximately $5 million, bringing the total to $22 million.

The 10 highest expenses were: architect design fees ($700,000), office furniture ($470,000), technology equipment ($425,000), land acquisition ($405,000), architect supervision fees ($350,000), cabinets and counters ($275,000), cafeteria equipment ($202,000), computers ($148,000), lockers and installation ($138,000) and media scanner, carts and books ($127,000).

In addition to the new junior high school, other projects/improvements that have been completed using SPLOST IV funds are:

Technology upgrades ($790,000), general repairs ($650,000), school buses ($380,000), Thomson High School construction lab ($338,000), instructional software ($290,000), McDuffie Achievement Center ($69,000), facilities maintenance ($52,000), software ($40,000), Usry House renovations ($38,000), band instruments ($37,000), student furniture ($16,000), Maxwell Elementary gym ($12,000), Thomson High stage ($11,000).

The junior high school, which was built to accommodate only eighth and ninth grades, was open for business on the first day of school in 2008.

Because cuts have been made in funds coming in from the state, school board members voted last month to close Thomson Middle School and reorganize the grades to change the junior high school to the system's only middle school next year. The "new" school will be called Thomson-McDuffie County Middle School.

Plans for the new Norris Elementary School have been temporarily withdrawn from state records so that an application for state funding can be submitted when local funds are available. Facilities costs for Thomson Elementary School were removed from state funding so that those funds could be channeled through to the new Norris building.

Almost $11,000 has been spent on improvements to the Brickyard, which includes an addition to the ladies' restroom and concession stand and fencing to separate the visitors from the home fans. But, major stadium renovations have been put on hold. Thomson High School Principal Rudy Falana has mentioned a capital campaign, but nothing official has been announced in that area.

Since 2006, three new members sit on the Board of Education, along with a new superintendent. The new people have learned from the mistakes of their predecessors. School system comptroller Tom Smalley now gives a monthly report on SPLOST funds, explaining how much money has been spent, where it is going, and how much is left. The report is printed for each board member, and Mr. Smalley gives an oral explanation at the planning meeting each month. He said he wants to make sure board members are "completely aware" of what is happening with SPLOST.

During a recent Kiwanis presentation, School Superintendent Jim LeBrun was asked how voters could know if building a new Norris Elementary building would use all of SPLOST funds like the junior high building did.

"It won't happen under my watch. It could happen, but it'll have to be under a different superintendent," Mr. LeBrun said, adding that he will send "the architect back to the drawing board" if plans exceeded the budgeted amount by millions of dollars.

Web posted on Thursday, March 25, 2010

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