In an open letter to schools superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson and Board of Education Chairman Steve Highlander, UnifiEd on Tuesday called for the Hamilton County Board of Education to initiate an audit of the school system’s capital needs and the creation of a multi-year capital plan. The call comes after the County Commission’s move last week to allocate $100 million of new money for school capital projects.
The letter states that this new money is not sufficient to fully fund all the immediate capital needs in schools, which have been estimated in recent years from approximately $180 million up to double that amount. No definitive dollar value is known because a comprehensive facility assessment has not been conducted, said officials.
“Without an audit of needs and a multi-year plan, decisions on capital projects will be subject to political maneuvering rather than an equitable distribution based on actual need,” said Jonas Barriere, UnifiEd executive director. “Accountability measures need to be in place to restore public confidence that their tax dollars are well spent with this new money allocated by the County Commission.”
UnifiEd suggests such an audit should provide an unbiased assessment of facility safety issues due to deferred maintenance, student capacity and population growth trends, building quality, and estimated cost to repair or replace schools. Audit findings should then be the basis of a multi-year capital plan. The organization suggests that plan should prioritize projects that address serious safety issues due to deferred maintenance, result in operational savings that can be reinvested into the classroom, reduce the concentration of students living in poverty in certain schools, and/or eliminate overcrowding.
A multi-year capital plan and budget was also backed by a group of business and community leaders whose independent review of school system spending and report on recommendations for efficiencies was released this spring.
Regarding the need for a multi-year capital plan, Mr. Barriere adds, “It’s hard to justify investments in year one that will produce savings or results in year two or three or 10 without a long-term plan.”
The letter specifically calls on the Board of Education to pass a resolution as soon as possible to hire an external audit firm or allocate dedicated staff to perform a thorough review of the state of the schools’ facilities and needs. It further calls for the Board to commit to making the resulting audit report publicly available and using it as the basis of its decisions on allocation of funds for capital projects.
The full letter to Dr. Johnson and Chairman Highlander is available for the public to read on UnifiEd’s website.
Here is HCDE’s statement response to Unifi-Ed’s Open Letter to Dr. Bryan Johnson and Dr. Steve Highlander:
"The Hamilton County Department of Education looks forward to tackling some of the $200+ million in deferred maintenance and construction needs with the funds created after the Hamilton County Commission voted eight to one to approve a resolution keeping the millage rate at its current assessment.
"A complete Facility Plan— including assessments on new construction and additions, current building needs, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing needs and athletic repairs— was completed on Jan. 20, 2017 and highlights many of the needs facing Hamilton County Schools.
"HCDE Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson will work closely with the HCDE School Board to decide which projects on the comprehensive facilities plan will benefit from the additional revenues generated.
"HCDE appreciates the community’s engagement and looks forward to leveraging the engagement to ensure all students are post-secondary ready."