Tuesday’s regular meeting of the Jackson County School Board was not just another routine meeting. At Tuesday’s meeting two issues which will be very important to Jackson County Education for many years to come, were discussed, voted on, and unanimously passed.
The most controversial and difficult decision which faced the board was whether or not to proceed with the new combined K-8 school which was initially proposed to the Board by Superintendent Steve Benton several months ago. This new “state of the art” facility would replace Riverside Elementary, Golson Elementary, and Marianna Middle School, all of which are all currently housed in facilities that are over 30 years old and requiring continuing and increasing maintenance.
The proposed facility would cost over $50 million dollars to build, a cost which the county could never afford, regardless of the need. However, a state program is currently available that provides funds for new school construction in a few school districts which are chosen each year. Officials feel that due to the age of the existing facilities, Jackson County can qualify for these funds. However the application process requires the local school district to provide a complete set of architectural and site plans. The involved designers have agreed to complete these plans while deferring $1.2 million of their fees, thus leaving $800,000 which the School Board must fund to fill this requirement. If for some reason the county failed to obtain these state funds, this investment by the planners and the school system will be lost. If Jackson County doesn’t receive the award this year, they can reapply in subsequent cycles.
During the discussion of the project School Board member Chris Johnson made the following statement: “I’ll be up front about it, until the presentation made by Facilities Director Stewart Wiggins at the workshop meeting, I was opposed to this proposal. However, Wiggins presented facts which convinced me that this was the best thing for the future education needs of Jackson County. Also, from an operational and economic standpoint he convinced me that this was the prudent thing to do from a management perspective. The savings generated from operating in this consolidated system will enable recovery of the cost of the project after five years. The savings will thus enable the School Board to do things for all of the rest of the schools in our system that would be beyond our capabilities under existing operational budgets. Thus, all schools and communities throughout Jackson County will ultimately benefit from this new school being built.”
Other comments made were; “A project this size would never be feasible if the County had to do it on its own. Additionally, we would have little hope of obtaining state assistance if we tried to replace our aging schools on an individual basis.” Another pertinent comment was; “By building this new “state of the art” school facility, along with our beautiful new high school, this segment of the school system will have its facility needs met for the next fifty years.”
As a result of the Board’s action in approving preparation of the required plans and submission of the application, work will begin immediately on getting everything required completed and submitted before the deadline. As part of the actions approved in matters related to this project, the Board approved the option agreement from the City of Marianna to make the land available for the new school, to be located within the Marianna Airport Industrial Park at the intersection of Caverns Road and SR 71 North. If the project funding is approved by the State in the 2015 funding cycle the facility would be completed in 2018.
Special School Funding Referendum Coming May 6
In another important vote taken during the Tuesday School Board meeting, the panel decided to proceed with a special May 6 referendum, with the County Supervisor of Elections Sylvia Stephens and her staff processing the mail-in ballots instead of using an outside contractor. This approach will reduce the cost of holding this special election by approximately $15,000. However, the cost of the referendum will be $50,000, a cost which the School Board plans to ask the County Commission to share.
The vote will enable the citizens of Jackson County to decide whether or not to continue the existing ½ cent sales tax which currently goes to the school budget for capital outlays. This revenue has been a very important part of the school system budget during recent years. It will expire December 31, 2015 if it is not renewed in this referendum, leaving the school system with a huge cut in available funds.
Members of the School Board stressed their belief in using a sales tax as much as possible to fill funding needs, since everyone shares in paying for filling education needs. Otherwise, the entire funding burden is placed on a much smaller group of property owners through ad valorem taxes. Many people feel the sales tax approach is more just and appropriate. If the voters approve the continuation, the tax would be extended until December 31, 2025.