The Carroll County Board of Supervisors has agreed to fund a $248,000 replacement of the roof at Carroll County High School and also agreed to support the Carroll County School Board’s plan to purchase five new school buses.
Supervisors unanimously agreed to a motion supporting both items Monday during a 90-minute special called meeting with the Carroll County School Board. The special meeting was called six days after the county’s Nov. 14 regular meeting in which a proposal was presented to supervisors to purchase four regular school buses and a special needs bus at a 35 percent discount. The deal, available through Thomas Built Buses and Detroit Diesel, would provide the school system with the five buses, which normally would cost $435,000, for $284,000.
In order to take advantage of the deal, Carroll has to make a commitment with the company by December 1 of this year. Since there were no school board representatives present to answer questions at the Nov. 14 meeting, and because of the quick turnaround, the county called the special meeting Monday night.
Carroll County School Board Finance Officer Tammy Quesenberry told supervisors Carroll was not approved for the discounted rate during the first round of funding. They later found out they were approved for up to five buses during the second round.
“We’ve had the conversation for several years know about our bus fleet and the shape we are in and we thought this was too good an opportunity to pass up,” Quesenberry said.
Quesenberry explained the school system has 82 buses, including 59 buses that run regular daily routes, in addition to seven special needs routes, 10 car routes, two activity buses, and three buses to transport ag and building trades students. Carroll uses every bus it has, she said, and 17 of the buses are 20 years or older. One bus has over 300,000 miles and several more have over 200,000 miles.
“We are trying our best to keep them on the road and we are having great difficulty. Of the spares, we are afraid a bus will break down and then a spare will break down,” Quesenberry said. “We have had times three route buses have broken down and we sent out three spares and one of the spares broke down. We don’t even have enough buses to run an extended field trip.”
Quesenberry said the spare buses are not allowed to travel out of the county because they lack dependability. Ideally, she said Carroll would love to replace five buses per year, but it has not been able to do so. Special needs buses allow the county to receive money back through Medicaid billing, so an extra special needs bus will help in that regard.
Carroll County Board of Supervisors Chairman Bob Martin switched gears at that point, asking about roofing problems at Carroll County High School (CCHS). Quesenberry said there are roofing issues at CCHS, and several more schools that were constructed or renovated in 2000 were done with 20-year roofs and are also nearing their max lifetime.
Going back to the bus issue, Carroll County School Board Chairman Brian Spencer said basically the county would be buying three buses and getting two for free. Payments would not have to start until the next Fiscal Year begins July 1, 2018, however, a commitment needs to be made by Dec. 1 to take advantage.
Quesenberry then said the school system needs to get the roof at CCHS in line for the spring. The roof for the right side of the building has already been sent to bid with the winning bid coming back at $248,000. Both sections of the CCHS roof that need replacing would cost $483,000, but the right side is the most pressing as it has been experiencing leaks.
Martin said the Phase I debt for Carroll County schools rolls off the books in 2023. Currently, the county is paying $2.2 million a year back on that loan. Martin suggested talking with federal funding agency USDA Rural Development about a loan for the buses and roof. He said the county doesn’t have a ton of money lying around, but passing up on school buses with a 35 percent discount would be tough to do. Other supervisors took a more cautious approach.
“Each time you borrow money it cuts into our operating fund, which cuts into our maintenance fund and we are maxed out already,” Supervisor Rex Hill said. “We have to be careful.”
Supervisor Joshua Hendrick said the roof at the high school has to be fixed. You can either pony up now or pony up later, he said, but ponying up later costs more.
“It has to be fixed, there’s no way around it. So how do you pay for the loan? We can’t write a check outright. There is no way,” Hendrick said. “What is the loan on a half a million dollar payment a year?”
Carroll County Administrator Steve Truitt estimated such a payment would cost about $65,000 annually.
“If it is pony up now or pony up later I would rather pony up now and at least get some options. The buses I don’t think you can pass up. Make the commitment and find loans to get us through this time,” Hendrick said.
Spencer said the school board needs approval for the roof now so it can pay the winning contractor, and an “okay” from the county to move forward with the school buses.
“We ask for the roof now and your blessing to commit to the school buses by December 1,” Spencer said. “The money is not due until July on those, but we have bids on the roof already. We need to know 30 days from when the bids came in. Our board has approved that we need it done, but nothing has been signed because we do not have that authority.”
With that blessing, Spencer said the school system would put the buses in its budget for the next fiscal year. Supervisor Tom Littrell said the county was hit by surprise. The called meeting was supposed to be about buses, but he didn’t know anything about the quick turnaround on the roofs until he showed up at the meeting.
“It would be great to have an idea when you say we are going to put these into next year’s budget what the concept of next year’s budget is in total instead of saying we are going to add another $285,000 on top of what it already is,” Truitt told the school board. “I don’t have any idea on what is in on the operating side that could be moved to the CIP (Capital Improvement Plan) side, but the discussion I would love to have before we get more debt, we need to come up with some kind of plan based on these numbers spread out over time instead of trying to get a loan for the first half a million dollars. If I am insulting anybody that is not my point, I just think it would do us all some good to get together on these things.”
Hendrick then wanted to say some blunt words before any motion was made. He said he has made it pretty clear during his six years on the board the county would support the school system as much as it could. But he said Fiscal Year 2019 will be even uglier than Fiscal Year 2018.
“What I ask the school board in return is we better sharpen some pencils. I want your commitment that when we say we need to whittle it, don’t come back with zero,” Hendrick said. “There will be cuts all the way around or it is going to be a huge tax increase. There are rising costs all the way around, school and county, we get them, too. The last increase on our jail fees was $400,000. The same invitation goes out to all departments, not just the schools.”
Spencer said the school board got hit with over $2 million in VRS payments over the past four years, but he thought the school board has done a good job of coming back with no or very small increases. They have pressures too with unfunded state mandates, he said.
“I can’t commit and promise. I think we work well together and I have shown you nothing but respect these last six years but I do not know what the state will do next year to any of us,” Spencer said. “I think we have a commitment we don’t want to see our school system less than it is.”
Hendrick said everybody knows times are tough and everybody must work together.
“Too many times everybody is afraid to make somebody upset. I can feel it already just since I started talking,” Hendrick said. “I have got two months (left before leaving office) and I don’t care if I make you mad or not. It will be tight on the county side. The same invitation will go out to everybody, all I am asking is that everybody is willing to play ball and then we will do what we can and figure how to pay for it.”
County Attorney Stephen Durbin said the county could make a “good faith” gesture to support the school board to acquire the buses, but it would be illegal to make a pending legal motion to move forward on item in an upcoming fiscal year budget that has yet to be crafted.
“You can direct staff to put it in the Fiscal Year 2019 budget,” Durbin said.
“We commited,” Spencer replied, “We are just asking good faith you understand. We didn’t know about this until the day of your meeting.”
Hendrick then made a motion the county provide a “good faith commitment” to the school board to support the school system on the buses and to seek immediate funding in the amount of $248,000, whether through USDA or a bank, to pay for the roof for the right side of CCHS.
“If it is in good faith, subject to appropriation and not legally binding, you can do that, but that is all,” Durbin said.
The motion was seconded by Hill and passed unanimously.
“We need to investigate the loan options. That is the most optimistic plan,” Hendrick said “The chances of us pulling $250,000 out of this budget is zilch.”
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN