School financing options questioned

By Jeff Whitten

McNairy Board of Education Chairman Larry Smith said the financing options for the county’s proposed new schools don’t seem reasonable.

At last Thursday’s school board meeting, Smith expressed unhappiness with the $18-20 million price tag presented by C. L. Overman, of Morgan Keegan, who is handling this bond issue as they have past ones for the county.

“To me, it looks like it will be impossible for us to come up with $18 million, $20 million dollars in any kind of reasonable fashion we can pay back,” Smith said.

He added, “We are still looking at different scenarios and we haven’t given up the ghost.”

Smith vowed to “keep trying to put the pieces of this pie together. It’s coming together, it just takes time.”

“You need to get all this nailed down before you start a project of this magnitude,” he said.

Smith also told the board that site work bids for the new Selmer Elementary School will open April 28.

In a later interview, Smith said that if combined project costs could be held to $12.5 million for 25 years, the county could pay $1.25 million per year and this would fit within the existing budget.

However, he said he was leery of some proposals, which would span 37 years and would allow the county to only pay interest for some years.

He said the school building program will probably be included in the budget proposal that will be submitted to the County Commission later.

In a conversation with Adamsville Mayor David Leckner before the meeting, he said that the site for the new Adamsville school had been surveyed.

Smith said that AES Principal Danny Combs is compiling information to submit to project architect Jev Vaughn, who will then figure the square footage of the building, based upon Combs’ recommendations. These figures will be necessary in determining the costs for the project.

According to school board and planning committee member Tony Chapman, in an earlier interview, the reasons why a new Selmer Elementary School is necessary are that it is a very old school, lacks hallways and is landlocked with no future for expansion. 

Traffic congestion at the school is also a problem, Chapman said. In addition, the location creates problems in the learning atmosphere and security for the school. Chapman said that although the school is not overcrowded now, it is going to get that way.

In a later interview, Smith agreed with Chapman about the reasons for the  need for a new school, except he believes that the school is already overcrowded. 

In a later conversation, Miskelly agreed that SES is overcrowded. He also cited the age of the school and the fact that it is landlocked,

Smith said that SES gets a lot of special education students, who take more space. He also said that some classes have to meet in the hallways.

Chapman explained that because of the lag time between conception and completion of a school, “you need to plan five or six years down the road.”

Some of the same problems exist in the case of the second school slated for replacement, Adamsville Elementary School (AES). This school, as well as Adamsville Junior/Senior High School (AJSHS) is overcrowded, Chapman said. After construction of the new elementary school, the old one would become a junior high school.

Miskelly said that AES is “out of space” and this “limits our opportunities for expansion and scheduling.”

As reported earlier in the Independent Appeal, Leckner told the school board in August that students were being turned away from the breakfast line at AES due to overcrowding.

He also said that the high school has to partition off the library to make room for classrooms, that it holds classes in the lunchroom as well as in the bleachers and locker room.

John Liddy told a school board meeting held in Adamsville in January that he has a child in the eighth grade at AJHS who only has physical education class three times a week when all of the other schools have it every day. 

Liddy is president of the Adamsville Partnership, a business/professional/civic group, and president of the Adamsville branch of Community South Bank.

Smith argued that there are 100 out-of-county students in AES and a similar number at AJSHS.

He acknowledged that the schools would lose state money if the out-of-county students were denied access to McNairy County schools.

However, he suggested there is a third option.

He said the cost is $1,600 per student, but they are only charged $250 per student.

Rather than collecting the $320,000 that would be obtained from everyone paying the full cost, the schools only collected $18,000 last year, Smith said.

Some are grandfathered in and others have various other exemptions such as being the children of teachers.

Chapman noted the efforts of the  two communities to assist in the effort to get two new schools built. 

The First Baptist Church of Selmer donated the land where the Selmer school is planned to be built and the City of Adamsville donated the land for the new Adamsville School.

“Any time you get folks that are willing to help out the government on things like that, we should take advantage of it,” he said.

Chapman touted the role of the new schools in economic development.

“If we can do this and get some schools in here we can show businesses  and industry that we are serious in getting our population educated for the jobs of the future,” he said.

Chapman rejected defeatism, saying, “We have to look to the future. We can’t just sit here and say we don’t have the facilities.”

The school building program originated from two sources, according to Chapman. 

First, it became apparent that Bethel Springs, Michie and Ramer elementary schools needed more space. 

Second, after reviewing the list of needs sent in by principals, support began to build on the board for the new schools.

Additions were made to these three schools at a cost of about $1.5 million, according to Smith. He said that these additions have solved the overcrowding at these three schools

Vaughn drew the preliminary plans for both schools. The plans are a hub and spoke design, with a central circular reception area  surrounded by rectangular modules, which would contain the gym, cafeteria and classrooms.

The board considered three sites for the new Selmer school, before settling on the site near Higginbottom Road and Highways 45 and 64, as reported earlier in the Independent Appeal. 

Other possible sites considered were one near the Fairgrounds, McNairy  Central High School and the Jaycee Building and the other was at the Bypass and Falcon Road.

Because the Higginbottom site is not anywhere near level, the board struggled for a while after its choice, due to the expense of dirt work. 

However, after considering the cost of utilities at the other sites, the board returned to its original site and voted to solicit bids for engineering work.

According to Chapman, one option for financing the schools is a wheel tax, which he called “the easiest to finance.” This tax is also lower in surrounding counties than in McNairy County, he said. 

“I am against raising taxes of any kind,” Smith said.

Another option is for Adamsville and Selmer to contribute half of their one-half cent sales tax to the schools. Surrounding counties also have higher sales taxes, Chapman said.

At a school board meeting in Adamsville in January, Leckner pledged Adamsville would support this option.

The public would have to vote on either of these financing options.

“I hope people have an open mind about it and we have a good discussion. People realize that education is an important priority and if you don’t get the education, you don’t get the good jobs,” Chapman said.