Oxford school board issues mea culpa over $24M discrepancy

By ERROL CASTENS / Daily Journal Oxford Bureau

OXFORD – Just days after winning approval of a $30 million bond issue, members of the Oxford School Board were trying to assuage voters’ concerns over cost estimates that grew dramatically after the campaign.
Oxford School District residents commonly believed the requested bonds would cover most of the costs of a new $27 million high school and renovations on existing school buildings. Figures released after the vote, however, showed an ambitious proposal with an estimated cost of $54 million.
Board members and city officials have received numerous calls, e-mails and face-to-face inquiries about the difference. Mayor Pat Patterson met with School Board President Buddy Chain for more than an hour last week to share those concerns and to look for answers.
“The main complaint I’ve received is from confusion over that $24 million (difference),” board member Denny Tosh said. “We do not have $24 million lying around anywhere.”
All five members of the volunteer board – Marian Barksdale, Whitney Byars, Chain, Romana Reed and Tosh – voted Thursday night to buy a quarter-page ad in Friday’s edition of the Oxford Eagle to explain their position. The cost was funded by board members’ personal contributions.
“We feel strongly that we need to keep the public trust,” Chain said.
As members worked on the wording they would offer, Reed pushed for a hat-in-hand approach.
“We sound arrogant,” she said, “and at this point I’m very humbled.”
Some wording reflected Reed’s sentiment.
“In the campaign materials, we indicated a likely allocation of bond monies to various projects, but the School Board did not make it clear to you or to our campaign organizers and volunteers that the bond money would not pay for all construction costs and that we would be using other resources as well,” the ad states. “It was never our intention to be less than forthright.”
The ad also explained where funding beyond the bond issue would originate.
“In 2006, when the economy was healthier, the Board established a capital improvement ‘savings account,’ which we supplement every year with unexpended funds if available,” the ad stated. “This account currently holds $4 million. We also maintain a Fund Balance, as required by every Mississippi school district, for emergencies and other needs that cannot reasonably be anticipated. This account currently holds $8.6 million.”
Some $8 million will come from those two funds, both of which have previously been used for repairs, expansions and new construction projects without tax increases.
Other funding in the plan includes $3 million in federal stimulus funds, $10 million over 10 years from a projected $1 million annual savings from the operating budget and $5.1 million from a 3-mill note. Architect Michael Jones, who was hired for preliminary planning and land search, estimated the district would spend $49 million on capital improvements by the end of fiscal year 2013.
The $54 million cost estimate includes land purchase and construction of a new high school, renovations and expansions at all existing campuses, relocation of the central administrative office and, eventually, the construction of new athletic facilities on the new high school campus.
Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or errol.castens@djournal.com.