Lee Schools ask voters to fund renovations

leeschoolbondsBy Chris Kieffer
Daily Journal

The Lee County School District has plans to upgrade, expand, renovate or freshen nine of its 11 campuses.

First, it must get the approval of its voters.

The district is requesting permission to issue $13.5 million in new bonds. To do so, 60 percent of voters in a July 30 election must say yes.

If passed, that money would be used to fund multiple projects throughout the district.
The new debt would replace that from a 1993 bond issue due to roll off the district’s books this fall. That means taxes would not increase if voters approve these bonds. If they fail, taxes would decrease by about $40 on a house with an assessed value of $100,000.

The district’s request has been rushed. It was first publicly discussed at a school board meeting on May 21, when board members approved this month’s election. That has left little time for the district to communicate its plans with the public.
It will try to overcome that during the next two weeks with a series of forums to introduce its ideas and answer questions. They will be held on Monday at Saltillo High School, Thursday at Mooreville High School and July 23 at Shannon High School.

Each forum will begin at 6:30 p.m. and will feature drawings with the district’s plans for construction and renovation.

“The tight time frame does make it a little more difficult,” said Lee County Superintendent Jimmy Weeks. “It would be great if we had enough time to speak to every civic organization or to have had more meetings at the schools. Certainly that would have helped to get the word out better.

“…We are trying to get the word out the best way we can in such a short time frame.”
Weeks said that is because by the time he realized the district could issue bonds without raising taxes, it didn’t leave much time to get the issue on the ballot before its deadline for making a funding request from the Lee County Board of Supervisors.

Had the district waited until next year to make the request, taxes would have decreased this year and it voters would have bee asked to raise them back to the previous level, a more difficult sell.
Parents Jennifer Keyes and Ben Robbins both said they generally support the district’s plans. But both also admitted they did not know many of the exact details and said that the tight time frame could hurt the vote.

“There hasn’t really been enough time for everyone to understand,” said Robbins, a parent of a recent Shannon High School graduate and two students currently attending the school. “It did jump up quickly. A little more time would have helped get support because a lot of people are in the dark. But I do understand a little of what they are planning to do.”

That said, Robbins added that he supports the district’s plans to expand its facilities.

“In my opinion, if they can improve the schools, I’m all for it,” he said, citing the fact that taxes won’t rise as a plus.

Keyes, who has two children at Guntown, also noted the need for work.

“I think anything that will better our kids and schools and education is important,” she said.

No new schools

The project will include new buildings or wings at Saltillo Primary, Saltillo High School, Guntown, Shannon High School and Plantersville. It will not include any new schools.
The addition of eight new classrooms at Saltillo Primary could allow the K-2 school to raise its enrollment as high as 900 or 1,000 students, a number that both Weeks and Principal Ken Smith said is not ideal for a primary school.

However, Weeks said, the only other option would have required raising taxes, something he did not want to do.

“If I had my druthers, we would build another school,” he said. “When you have 850 kindergartners, first graders and second graders on the campus, man, you are talking about organized chaos. They are little and they need a lot of attention.
“It would be great if we could build another school and reduce the numbers on that campus…We didn’t explore that far because we knew we didn’t have the money to build a new school.”

The district does have parcels of land set aside in Saltillo, Mooreville and Shannon to accommodate the construction of new schools in the future. However, school districts are also only allowed to have a debt equal to a certain percentage of their tax base. That means if this bond issue does pass, it could be several years before the district is able to borrow money again.
The district also has debt from a 2003 bond that might not be retired for another 10 years.

“Maybe our ad valorem tax rolls will increase and it will mean more money to the district and we’ll be able to build a new school without requiring a bond issue,” Weeks said.

Although the school district is anticipating $13.5 million from this bond issue, Weeks said it could be as high as $14 million if interest rates are favorable. The district will combine that money with about $2 million it has saved for construction to use on these projects. Weeks said it will also leave money in its construction fund to prepare for emergencies, such as the need foe new roofs.
Weeks also noticed that plans can be changed by the community forums.

“I don’t want to say this is what we’re going to do for sure because when we go to the community meetings, there may be someone who comes up with an idea that is better than something we thought of,” Weeks said. “I think we have a good idea of what we need to do, but we are still open to the best way to meet those needs.”

chris.kieffer@journalinc.com

Community Forums

LEE COUNTY SCHOOL OFFICIALS will present information and answer about the proposed bond issue in these public forums, all starting at
6:30 p.m.:
• Monday: Saltillo High School
commons area
• Thursday: Mooreville High
School gym or cafeteria
• Tuesday, July 23: Shannon High
School auditorium