County Commission Kills Land Deal for School Board

April 18, 2011
by: 
Dwayne Page
Mark Willoughby addressing county commission
Jack Barton
Mike Foster

The DeKalb County Board of Education will not be able to purchase fifty two acres of property on the Allen Ferry Road for the future home of a new school.

The DeKalb County Commission Monday night, on a 7 to 7 tie vote, denied the school board's request for approval of a budget amendment in the amount of $374,000 from the school system's Basic Education Program Reserve (BEP) Funds to buy the property.

Eight yes votes were needed for passage.

County Mayor Mike Foster could have exercised his privilege of voting to break the tie but he chose not to do so.

Those voting in favor of granting the school board's request to approve the budget amendment were Mason Carter and Elmer Ellis, Jr of the first district, Bobby Joines of the second district, David McDowell of the fourth district, Jerry Adcock of the fifth district, Marshall Ferrell of the sixth district, and Jimmy Poss of the seventh district.

Those voting against the school system's request for the budget amendment were Jack Barton of the second district, Jerry Scott and Bradley Hendrix of the third district, Wayne Cantrell of the fourth district, John Green of the fifth district, Jeff Barnes of the sixth district, and Larry Summers of the seventh district.

Although the director of schools and school board members have not said definitely that the Allen Ferry Road property was intended for a new high school location, at least some county commissioners believe that was the intent of this proposed purchase.

Seventh district member Larry Summers, prior to casting his no vote, said he favored developing two community elementary schools elsewhere in Smithville, similar to DeKalb West School, rather than building a high school. "I'm for a building program but not this building program. I think the success of the west school is known. I think two community schools up here would kind of mimic the size and community involvement like the west school and would be better served so I vote no on this property," said Summers.

Later in his remarks to the commission, Director of Schools Mark Willoughby apparently took exception to Summers statement, saying that the job of the county commission is to authorize funding for school needs, not to decide where schools should be built. "I think some members of the county court have gotten their role and the school board's role confused or mixed up. I would ask that you let the school board do their job and respectfully county commissioners I would ask that you do your job of funding. I'm not mad. I'm disappointed because I'm talking about three thousand students. To the seven members of this court (who voted no), I think you've made a bad decision about what's best for the children of DeKalb County," said Willoughby

In response to Summers' suggestion about having two community schools in Smithville similar to the west school, Willoughby explained that the west school has approximately four hundred students in pre-kindergarten to eighth grade but that two similar schools in Smithville would each have about 857 students, which is more than the high school population. Willoughby questioned whether that would be a good move. "In the Smithville area where we have most of our population of students, if you have a school with more than eight hundred students the majority of the parents probably would not want kindergarten students and those in pre-school and first grade in the same building with seventh and eighth graders. Most progressive school systems are now going to a three tiered system, pre-k through 5 schools, 6th-8th grade schools, and 9th through 12th grade schools." Willoughby admitted though that studies have shown that many students experience an achievement gap when they have to move from one school building to another.

During his remarks, Willoughby read from a letter he sent to members of the county commission over the weekend making his final appeal for their approval. In the letter, Willoughby said " I am writing to request that you vote yes to allow the DeKalb County School System to amend the budget in order to purchase the property on Allen Ferry Road for a future school. This vote is not for any adult on the school board or any adult on the county commission. It is a vote for the children of DeKalb County. This has not been a rushed decision to purchase land for the children."

"As you may know the school system in 2008 formally made a request for funding once a suitable building site was located. We have now located a suitable building site which is centrally located and has been confirmed by professional engineers. These professionals make a career out of evaluating building sites. They have evaluated this site and determined that it is in the top 33% of building sites where schools are built on. After the evaluations of the property, it is proven to be an even better site than what I thought in the very beginning. The school system is not asking for any money. The school system is only asking to use money in the BEP reserves which is intended for only one time purchases. The BEP reserves are often used by school systems throughout the state of Tennessee for such purposes. It is no secret that the future of the children of DeKalb County will have to have a new school built soon. So I ask you to allow the school system to use the money that is already in reserves for this purpose," wrote Willoughby.

Some members of the county commission have expressed concerns about the potential costs of excavation and site preparation at this location. In response, Willoughby said " It would be hard to find property at a better price, which is centrally located, even considering excavation of the land and site preparation. If excavation (site preparation) of the property is what we heard $2.1 million, I don't believe that's out of line when you consider that takes in sewage, pumping station, roads to be built and things like that. This is not out of line with any major building project of a school," said Willoughby.

Second district member Jack Barton, who voted no on the request, stressed that his opposition is based on fiscal responsibility, not whether he supports the school system. "This is not a vote about the children. This is a vote about the fiscal responsibility of trying to find the best property for the school board to build on. Ours isn't to choose the schools they build, whether it be a K-8 or a high school, but without options we can't really know for sure, with myself not being an engineer and Mr. Willoughby not, that a higher (priced) piece of property on the front end doesn't equate to a better piece of property on the back end. I've had so many people approach me about please vote for the schools. I'm not against schools. I would vote to buy property that was fiscally prudent. My no vote was not against children or the future growth of the school system. I encourage the school board to come back to us with a five year plan, a ten year plan, and a fifteen year plan of where our growth rates are going and not from somebody trying to sell us a school but from somebody who can help us arrive at correct population figures. We need to pick property that's not only fiscally sound but also provides for expansion. I'm not against the school system, Mr. Willoughby, or the school board. I'm proud of our schools, but I want to make sure that the voting public knows that this is not just about children, it's about money. Whether its BEP reserves, state money or federal money, its somebody's tax money," said Barton.

Willoughby responded "Mr. Barton that's why I hired civil engineers and architects to make the evaluation. Their evaluation proved very positive on that site. I went to professionals and asked them how it needed to be evaluated. These people build schools all over the state of Tennessee and they tell us that this building site is in the top 33% of building sites".

County Mayor Foster suggested that the school board and county commission work toward ending their differences and find common ground. "My idea is we sit down and try to solve problems rather than create problems for each other. I fully understand that the school board's responsibility is to run the schools. I also understand that these fourteen men here (county commissioners) are the ones who decide how things are funded. We have got to be together. We don't need to be two separate entities arguing with each other. I think everybody here is concerned about the children. We don't need to be argumentative. We need to sit down and communicate. We all realize that a lot of our schools are old and need something done to them. I fully agree with you Mark (Willoughby) that its your (school board's) decision what schools to build, but the county commission will have to arrange funding for that (in the future) and we'll have to ask the taxpayers to probably increase their taxes by thirty, forty, or fifty percent. We all need to be on board with that. We can't do it if we're divided. It's time we sit down and try to solve those things," said Foster

In January, the school board voted unanimously to enter into a contract to buy this property, subject to approval by the county commission and a favorable site assessment study by the engineers.

The site, which is located near the existing DCHS/DeKalb Middle School campuses, belongs to Mark and Karen Adams, Melvin and LeeAnn Crips, and Billy Crips.

Under terms of the contract, the school system had a 90 day "due diligence" period to have an engineering firm conduct core drilling, inspections of the title to the property, the environment condition of the land, and other site assessments to determine whether the property is satisfactory for it's intended purposes.

Director of Schools Willoughby said that architects and engineers who conducted the site study found 44 usable acres suitable for a new school.

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