Schools Cannot be Fixed for only $9 million
Recently, I noticed that Andy McCready gave an interview to WSLS in which he stated that the “Plan B” for the middle schools if the referendum fails is to enact a $9.3 million dollar plan. The Plan, seen in its entirety here, can best be described as a bandaid in that it will only accomplish the following three objectives: replace the windows in both schools, install HVAC units for the classrooms and offices, and upgrade the electrical systems SOLELY to handle the new HVAC systems. Here’s a list of items that will not be addressed by this plan, but that the Board of Supervisors is well aware of: new roofs, new doors, upgraded wiring, new plumbing, sidewalk repairs, repaving parking lots, installing fire alarms, and auditorium repairs. According the Dr. Kevin Siers, Superintendant of Schools, in 2013 OWPR “projected a total renovation cost of $32.4 million for Pulaski Middle School and $32.8 million for Dublin Middle School” to fully bring all of the systems up to code for at least 15-20 years.
We know the Board of Supervisors is aware of these issues because all current capital improvement requests from the School Board (like a new roof) are part of the County budget process and there is currently another $530,374 (see page 7) in unfunded projects for just the middle schools on the budget for 2016-2017. So that makes the full costs of even basic upkeep issues almost $10 million. This amount does not include new wiring for current technology needs, new plumbing to replace the original pipes, structural issues in the walls, sidewalk and parking lot repairs, installing FIRE ALARMS, auditorium repairs, and ADA compliance issues which would result from any major work which would push the price tag much, much higher. When Spectrum (who authored the HVAC report) presented their architectural review for PCMS, Mr. McCready tried to ask them about their renovation work on other schools. Just as a comparison, Spectrum’s work at Cave Spring Middle School, begun in 2011, cost over $26.8 million dollars and the school only holds about 700 students (or 30% less than the proposed PCMS). When Montgomery County converted Auburn High School to a middle school in 2014 it cost $21.6 million dollars and only has an enrollment of 280 students, almost 75% less than the proposed PCMS which would have a combined enrollement of almost 1,000 students. A comprehensive, long-term solution to the middle school problem will require a tax increase that will be several times higher than Mr. McCready’s claim of just $0.02.
A comprehensive, long-term solution to the middle school problem will require a tax increase that will be several times higher than Mr. McCready’s claim of just $0.02.
We also know that the Board of Supervisors will raise your taxes, because they’ve been planning on it for most of the year. On February 20 of this year, at the Board’s regular budget work session they reviewed the attached document. The document contains a plan to raise revenue by about $2 million, including a $0.06 real estate tax hike and additional new taxes and fees, like a 50% increase in the price of a car decal. This was months before the School Board presented their plan for the new middle school. Funding a new middle school will cost about $3 million per year which, as I’ve discussed before, will only require the full tax increase for about 5 years before our other school debt starts to be paid off. On the other hand we’ll spend $650,000 on debt for economic development projects in 2017, on top of $850,000 in 2016. All of this money flows through the Industrial Development Authority of Pulaski County, which according to our auditors required an extra $369,000 (see page 5) in 2015-2016 to keep it in the black.
The reality is that our taxes are going up. The question is how much are they going to go up now, and how much later. If we build a new school, we’ll be locking in historically low interest rates (less than half of what the County paid to build the High School) and getting a brand new building. If we try to patch our old schools, we’ll pay a little less now, but we’ll have to continually borrow money to fix them piecemeal. The only people who will benefit from that are the construction firms and the people we borrow money from, not the citizens of this County.
State Funding and County Revenues
We hear all of the time about how we need to provide enticements to businesses in order to fund new jobs and generate economic activity. I wondered how well the school system worked to bring funds into the county, since the school system is the second largest employer in the County. Also, just how much the residents of the county pay collectively in income and sales taxes to Virginia compared to the amount of money we receive in the form of direct funding.
In the most recent budget, Pulaski County received $43 million dollars from Virginia for various services and programs broken down as follows:
- $26.7 million for schools,
- $10 million for social services,
- $3.1 million in shared expenses,
- $3.2 million in categorical and non-categorical aid.
As a comparison, Pulaski County raises about $37 million in revenue from local sources. That means, just in terms of direct funding, the Commonwealth spends more in Pulaski County than the county itself does. On top of that, the Commonwealth also provides infrastructure spending, law enforcement, education, and other indirect sources of funding (through services) inside and around the County.
So how much do we pay for all of that? Well, according to the Virginia Department of Taxation Pulaski County pays just under $24 million in income tax (See page 19). While county residents pay about $21.2 million in sales tax to the state, in 2016 about $8.2 million was returned to the County (See page 30). Other taxes are not broken down by locality, but comprise less than 15% of the budget. That means Pulaski County residents pay about $37 million in taxes to Virginia, compared to at least $43 million dollars in direct funding. The next time you hear politician tell you they’ll lower taxes in the Commonwealth, remember it will almost invariably lead to less money for Pulaski County and higher local taxes to make up the shortfall.
So what does this have to do with the middle school? Well, state funding for education is based on attendance. If the County does not have facilities that attract and retain students, we’ll receive less funding from the state. Even making up half of the $26.7 million the state currently funds would require a more than $.50 real estate tax increase ($250,000/penny of tax x $0.52 = $13,000,000). Even a 10% drop in state funding ($2.7 million) would require a tax increase of more than $0.10 to compensate. That’s almost exactly the amount needed to pay the debt on the new middle school. When voting on November 7th, we’ll be deciding between doing our best to retain the greatest number of students and funding or accepting that both students and funding will disappear at an accelerating rate.