Officials may look to bond referendum

Surry County officials met with school leaders on Wednesday, discussing school funding and capital needs, with all of them deciding one thing is inevitable — the county will need to eventually go to voters seeking permission to issue bonds to finance more than $170 million in capital needs.

Surry County Commissioners R.F. “Buck” Golding and Larry Phillips met with the superintendents of the county’s three school systems to discuss any concerns regarding County Manager Chris Knopf’s recommended budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

Surry County Schools Superintendent Dr. Travis Reeves told the two commissioners, who make up the board’s finance committee, that he had hoped for increases in the county’s schools capital outlay and current expense appropriations. School officials had asked for an increase in capital outlay from $50 to $100 per student and from $1,090 to $1,125 in current expenses.

While Reeves voiced his concern about those funds, most of the discussion between he and commissioners was regarding “special projects.” Throughout the county’s three districts, facilities studies completed by an engineer called for $173 million in infrastructure improvements.

Phillips told Reeves that Assistant County Manager Betty Taylor was working on a plan to pay for the improvements. However, Phillips, Golding and Reeves seemed to arrive at a common inevitable reality — a bond referendum will be necessary to fund the complete overhaul of the county’s school facilities.

Phillips told Reeves that the county has about $2 million of unrestricted funds in its unappropriated fund balance. Phillips said the county can fund some smaller projects that don’t require the county to take-on any further school related debt.

Phillips told Reeves that he believed the county’s schools are a key piece in economic development. “The first things companies look at is the skill set of the workforce,” Phillips told Reeves.

The discussion of a possible bond referendum led to Golding recounting a past attempt on the part of the county schools to pass a bond referendum. “It failed 2-1, I believe,” Golding told the small assembly of officials. While Golding said he supports the matter, he told Reeves that a campaign for the referendum would need to start sooner rather than later.

Golding pointed out that a county-wide bond referendum to pay for school capital improvements would take a good deal of coordinating between Reeves and his colleagues at the Elkin and Mount Airy districts. The two commissioners and superintendent agreed that the fall of 2016 would be the optimal time for the initiative to go on the ballot.

Reeves said that if a campaign to pass a bond referendum were to happen, he and other officials would rely greatly on the activism of parents who had children in the district. Officials didn’t discuss any specifics regarding the possible bond referendum, including the dollar amount of the bond. Instead they focused on the plausibility of getting a referendum passed if it does go before Surry County voters.

While officials may look to a bond referendum to fund the bulk of the $173 million in facility improvements, Reeves noted that Knopf had met some of his “special funding” requests. Those requests include funding for an activity bus with a wheelchair lift and $100,000 associated with the repair or rebuilding of crumbling concrete bleachers at East Surry High School.

Reeves also asked commissioners to re-evaluate a $25,000 request to improve a water tank at Mountain Park Elementary. Reeves said the tank must be fixed over the summer break. If not, Reeves said the school would have to be shut down for seven to ten days during the school year. That concern was quickly relayed to Knopf by Golding.

The two commissioners had a similar dialogue with Mount Airy City Schools Superintendent Dr. Greg Little. Knopf’s budget funded many of the district’s requests for special funding, which included lights at Mount Airy’s baseball field, a cooling tower and intercom system at Tharington Primary and the second of two appropriations for an activity bus.

Little did ask commissioners to reconsider a $120,000 request for security funds. Though Knopf’s proposed budget offers more than $16,000 to address security needs in the city’s school district, Little told Golding and Phillips the appropriation doesn’t come close to what he feels is needed in the district’s facilities.

Little went on to tell commissioners that he would like to install “buzz-in” entry systems at the districts elementary and middle schools. Additionally, Little said that security funds were needed to address issues with security camera coverage at Tharington Primary School. According to Little the security cameras at the school don’t provide adequate views of portions of the campus that are critical for student safety.

Little also said he would support a bond referendum. However, the superintendent told commissioners that he would need to be able to show the voting public what they are getting for their money. Little added that the campaign for a bond initiative would take all three school systems bearing proportionate amounts of the work associated with a campaign.

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