By ZACH HARMUTH
The county commission, the funding body for Williamson County Schools, got its first look Monday night at a $46.1 million resolution requesting funding to purchase of 615 acres of land to handle school district growth over the next decade. However, the commission only acted on a small portion of the request.
Williams County Schools Superintendent Dr. Mike Looney came hoping for $46.1 million in intent-to-fund dollars and left with $10.5 million to purchase about 40 acres and a deferment on the rest. However, it could be considered a victory, given he got the minimum amount WCS projects to need to remain on schedule to serve the projected growing population immediately.
Going before the commission’s Education Committee, the $46-million intent-to-fund resolution was amended down to $10.5 million, with the committee unanimously deciding to defer a vote on the rest, and any other intents to fund, to a specially scheduled joint meeting of the Budget and Education Committees on Jan. 3, 2017. Because the next County Commission meeting is not until Jan. 9, the decision gives the committee members extra time to do homework on some stark numbers.
“I am not ready to vote on this tonight,” Tommy Little, commissioner District 5, said. “There is too much I am not certain of.”
Little and other commissioners said they would feel more comfortable with some time to take in the numbers, discuss them. In many ways, the vote is tied to the question of how to fiscally maintain an excellent school system, which by its excellence has brought in a flood of additional students and stressed the environment that made it great.
Looney said $10.5 million was the bare minimum he could move forward with; any less of a commitment right now would hinder his ability to negotiate buying land and setting in motion school construction.
“You are the funding body,” he said. “I am just coming to you with a need. At the end of the day, it is my job to educate the students and in a way your job is a lot harder than mine. I am just telling you what we need.”
He said the most pressing need for a new school is in the Page High School area, which unlike Franklin and Brentwood High Schools, cannot be expanded to have a higher capacity due to seweage capacity.
“I have found that without an intent to fund landowners are less willing to negotiate,” he said. “Until you can come to the table with money, they just give you lip service.”
The committee members, in different words, made sure to point out their commitment to the school system, but at the same time expressed their fiscal responsibility to consider things deliberately and explore all options before committing to funds.
“The voters will give us report cards, in the end,” Todd Kaestner, commissioner District 9, said. Kaestner said he also needs more data before committing to a position. He expressed doubt, however, at WCS calculations in expected requests for schools are structured in a way as to not ultimately leave the county further in debt after a decade than it is now.
The $46.1 million in requests were approved, unanimously, by the Williamson County School Board at last Monday’s meeting. But the board ultimately needs the ok from the county commission to get the funds. The resolution approved by the school board aims to save money long-term by buying land now at today’s prices for 17 new schools expected to be needed in the next decade if current population growth continues. Land costs are expected to increase by about 5 percent per year.
Facing the county is the challenge of funding the anticipated growth of 20,000 students in 10 years, 10,000 of which expected in the next five years. That amount of growth, WCS projects, will mean a cost of about a half-billion dollars in new schools in the next decade.
On the agenda, in addition to the funding for land purchases, were requests for an additional $93.9 million for everything the school board feels it will need to buy land, plan, design and construct schools over the next two to three years.
The money will come from future bond issues, which will need to be funded by a separate vote, but could also partially be funded by the just-passed developer impact fee. The intent to fund does not specify when or how soon the county must issue the bonds.
Asking for all this money upfront instead of piecemeal is new way to request funding for WCS. Though Looney said it was the most transparent route. Traditionally, the district has always waited until schools were at overcapacity before purchasing the land to create a new school. If the county waits to buy the land – as it does now – Looney said it will cost taxpayers an additional $10 million.
“It’s good business sense. The processes are already confusing enough, and one of the things I hear in the commission and committee process,” he said. “We are trying to streamline and make it more transparent as to what they are the funding.”
Looney said he had presented the plan to Williamson County Mayor Rogers Anderson in conversation to hear the district’s perspective.
“[Anderson] took it as information,” Looney said. “He’s intelligent and knows we have to buy our property.”
Looney and other board members said they recognized the price of land would only increase. As the district did with the Nolensville High-Mill Creek campus, Williamson County Schools would like to continue to find parcels where they could combine land use. Right now, the district is already constructing something similar with a K-8 facility in Thompson’s Station.