That’s a lot of money

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By John Barnhart

    Last week District 5 Supervisor Steve Arrington reported to his fellow supervisors that the school board has developed a long range capital improvement plan with a price tag of $120 million. Arrington along with District 6 Supervisor Annie Pollard are the two supervisors who serve on the school liaison committee.
    This figure has already been reported in the Bedford Bulletin in our Aug. 22 edition. Tom Wilmoth, who normally covers school board meetings, wrote that the school board had adopted a $125 million, 20-year facilities plan. The biggest single item in this plan, with an estimated price tag of $30 million, is the new middle school in the Liberty attendance zone.
    This is a lot of money, but there are some things we need to keep in mind when we look at it.
    One thing is that the county is contractually obligated, due to a provision in the reversion contract that the county signed with the city, to build the new middle school. Furthermore, something needs to be done as Bedford Middle School is too small to hold the entire Liberty Zone 6th grade. Sixth graders from Montvale, Big Island and Thaxton are still at those elementary schools.
    Finally, the school board and supervisors know where the money for this school is going to come from. When Bedford reverts to town status next summer, Bedford County will get the former city’s local composite index (LCI) for the next 15 years. This is the formula the state uses to determine how much school money goes to each school division and having the city’s LCI will bring the county an estimated $90 million in additional school money during those 15 years. This will pay for the middle school as well as an expansion of Forest Middle School, which has an estimated price tag of $12 million. That expansion is needed as I understand some of the students at FMS have been in trailers since the school opened.
    Of course, we have to remember, when we talk about state money, that the state has no money. It comes out of your pocket, just the same as local money. It’s just a different hand reaching in to get it.
    The fact that this money is taken from the people who worked to earn it is why the school board needs to be careful as they spend it. They need to make sure that they build a middle school that provides what the student needs without architectural embellishments that add to the cost. The school also needs to be designed in a way that makes future operation and maintenance cost effective.
    When I think of architectural embellishments, the big glass dunce cap that architects talked the school board into putting on Montvale Elementary School comes to mind. How much did that add to the school’s cost? I’ve also heard that the school’s roof is leaking, although I haven’t heard if the leak has  anything to do with that architectural oddity.
    I think the county should also use the Public-Private Education and Infrastructure Act (PPEA) when it builds the new school. This process brought in the JF renovation under budget. I think it’s a great process as it discourages a contractor from low-balling an estimate because the PPEA process would make him eat the cost overruns.
    It looks like the extra money that the county will get by inheriting Bedford’s LCI will cover most of this 20-year capital improvement plan. But again, the school board needs to be careful as it moves forward. It must try to find the lowest cost option that will provide what is needed, again keeping in mind that this state money comes out of the citizens’ pockets.
    One final thing. As this is a 20-year plan, it is possible that, as time goes on, the school board will discover that some of the things won’t actually need to be done. However, looking that far out in the future is a good idea as it should help the supervisors as they look down the road and work to figure out how they will pay for everything.