Cobb Board of Education split on Harmony Leland and Clay elementary rebuild funding
MARIETTA — Cobb school board members were at odds this week over setting aside $5 million for the rebuild of Harmony Leland and Clay elementary schools in Mableton during a discussion of the superintendent’s proposed fiscal 2016 budget.
During the lead-up to deciding what projects to fund with the 1-percent special purpose local option sales tax approved by Cobb voters in 2013, only two elementary schools could be chosen for rebuild, according to Nick Parker, the district’s SPLOST director.
Harmony Leland, Clay, Brumby and Mountain View elementary schools were the top finalists and the board chose Brumby and Mountain View to rebuild with SPLOST IV funds.
However, because of pleas from the community, the board voted last year to set aside $5 million from its general fund reserves, also called the fund balance, to build a new school in Mableton to replace Harmony Leland and Clay.
Harmony Leland parents such as Sharie Bassett told the board at the time that the school, which is tied for the county’s oldest, having been built in 1951, had roof leaks when it rains, cracks in windows and suspected mold in the walls.
Parker said a new elementary school would typically cost about $30 million, although he noted it’s difficult to gauge without having a design or location.
At the board’s Wednesday meeting, Chairman Randy Scamihorn requested a line item be added to the proposed budget to set aside another $5 million for the possible rebuild project.
“The district and board has pledged to south (and) southwest Cobb County to continue giving consideration for rebuild of the Clay (and) Harmony Leland schools,” Scamihorn said. “We will possibly look at that $5 million that we have pledged to come out of the fund balance.”
Scamihorn ran into objections from board members David Banks, Scott Sweeney and Susan Thayer.
Banks who lobbied last year for the board to rebuild Powers Ferry Elementary, a school in his post, objected to Scamihorn’s request, saying it has nothing to do with the budget.
Banks, who represents northeast Cobb, said the school board should include the new elementary school on the project list in the next SPLOST cycle — SPLOST V.
A SPLOST V would first have to be approved by voters and begin after SPLOST IV expires in December 2018.
“We have never built a new school out of general funds. It’s either been bonds or SPLOST money,” Banks said. “If we want to rebuild Harmony Leland, we need to get it in SPLOST V because it’s going to take about $30 million or north to do it, and we’ve got to find some land to put it on. It can’t be rebuilt where it’s at.”
Scamihorn noted it was a line item when the board approved the fiscal 2015 budget last year and said that set a precedent.
“I’m not sure that it’s relevant where the funds come from as long as we’ve made a pledge to not forget the good folks in south Cobb County,” said Scamihorn, who represents northwest Cobb. “We’ve already started that set-aside. … We’re not really using it; the money’s still there.”
Banks maintained putting the set-aside in as a line item was inappropriate because it is just a reallocation of money in the fund balance and pointed out the reserve fund isn’t included in the budget.
“What we take out of the fund balance is for expenditures only — at that time for that fiscal year,” Banks said.
Brad Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer, said the board can vote to commit a fund balance to a different category — such as from unassigned to a committed category — which is what the board did last year for the $5 million set-aside.
“Many districts have built buildings with general fund money,” Johnson said. “There’s no accounting reason why you can’t do it.”
However, he noted Cobb historically uses bonds and SPLOST funds for capital improvements, not the general fund or fund balance.
Board member Scott Sweeney, who represents east Cobb, reminded the board of the discussion about fund balance allocations last year, where he suggested using the money to increase the amount of new teaching positions.
“I very specifically said we need at least 400 positions,” Sweeney said, which was 100 more than what was approved. “This board may recall that as the school year opened, the superintendent had to come back and ask for more dollars for that very reason.”
Sweeney said the district is still about 900 to 1,000 teachers shy of the number it had during the 2008-09 school year.
“My deep concern is that we’re sequestering dollars out of the general fund through committing fund balance to specific projects when we’re still chasing trying to reduce classroom sizes and hire new teachers,” he said.
Sweeney said the district wants to reduce class sizes, which he says could potentially take 10 years at the current rate, noting the proposed fiscal 2016 budget is only reducing the deficit by 100 teachers and the district is expecting enrollment growth over the next decade.
“I think it’s something that we can take a look at later in the year to determine, much like we did with the teacher raises,” Sweeney said, referencing the 1 percent pay restoration the board approved in October. “Let’s see where we are further down the road to see if we have the flexibility.”
Scamihorn said a future board could easily take a vote to undo the commitment, noting if the money is needed, it can be accessed.
“In my opinion, there’s really very little downside by setting aside that money. It’s more or less a savings account, is it not? In layman’s terms?” he asked Johnson, who confirmed Scamihorn’s description.
Board member Susan Thayer, who represents the Smyrna area, said as a new board member, she would not be comfortable voting in favor of setting aside the money until she has had more time to study the issue.
“My concern is that I would have to vote against something like that for lack of information where, at a later point, I might support it,” Thayer said.
By the end of the discussion, Scamihorn withdrew his motion to give board members time to assess Harmony Leland and other schools if they choose to. The board is expected to vote on whether to approve the tentative budget for the purpose of public advertisement at its April 30 meeting.