School board approves new budget; unhappy with bus purchase plan and invoice rejection

By MIKE WILLIAMS

The Patriot

The Pulaski County School Board on Tuesday unanimously approved a final budget for the 2017-18 school year, but not without much discussion on school buses.

The $49.7 million spending plan includes $14.6 million in county funds –$400,000 more than the current year.

According to Assistant Superintendent Chris Stafford, the budget – based on an Average Daily Membership of 4,021 students – includes $418,000 mandated by the state for new VRS retirement contribution rates.

There’s also $247,000 in spending on a step pay increase for teachers and adjusted coaching supplements.

Another $222,000 is included to pay for increases in the pay scales for custodians, maintenance employees and computer technicians.

Stafford listed several items cut from the original budget, submitted to the Board of Supervisors in March, to make the final version balance. The cuts – totaling some $400,000 – included $229,000 in personnel costs for central office restructuring, $74,000 in school-based personnel cuts, $19,000 in work cell phone reductions and $86,000 in reduced joint services expenditures.

The final budget includes no direct county funding for school buses as it has in prior years.

According to Stafford, the county will provide unused “residual” bond funds from previous capital improvement projects – such as the Dublin Elementary expansion and renovation – to pay for new capital improvement projects on a reimbursement basis.

In recent years, the school system has been allowed to keep unused budget funds – carryover funds – and place them in a capital improvement fund for capital projects.

This year the carryover funds are to be used to fund bus replacements.  The carryover funds total about $340,000 – enough to buy three buses.

“So, we have somewhere around $300,000 for capital improvements at our schools,” board member Beckie Cox (Massie District) asked Stafford. “We don’t have another few million dollars to fix roofs or windows or air conditioning or anything else?”

Stafford agreed.

Vice Chairman Mike Barbour (Ingles District) noted the residual bond funds from the county represent “one-time” money.

“How far behind are we on our bus replacement schedule,” Barbour asked.

Stafford said the school system operates on a 20-year replacement cycle, however, he said the state recommends a 15-year cycle.

Operations Director Ron Nichols told Barbour the school system is running buses this year that are in the 21- to 22-year range.

Nichols said the school system operates 75 buses, and would need to purchase five new ones per year to maintain a 15-year replacement cycle.

“We’re way behind schedule,” Nichols said. “It would take a large infusion of money to catch us up. We’re certainly 12 to 15 buses behind where we should be to be on a 15-year cycle.”

Barbour asked how many years the county has purchased school buses as part of the annual budget process. Nichols responded that the county has purchased buses each year dating back to the early-90’s, if not the mid-80’s.

“So, this is a change of policy that has been in place for 30 years,” Barbour asked. “Yes,” Nichols responded.

“Essentially, at this funding amount we are never going to be able to meet state recommendations,” Barbour said.

Nichols agreed, noting the school bus fleet keeps getting further behind.

Barbour pointed out that, even with purchasing three buses a year, it would take 25 years to replace them all.

“What you will see on the expense side is a larger increase in costs to maintain these buses,” Nichols said. “We find we’re buying more major components like engines and transmissions – things we usually wouldn’t spend a lot of money on.  Normally it would be a rarity to do that. Now, because we are extending the life of the buses further and further, we’re buying more of those major components, and that becomes more expensive on the operational side.”

Dr. Paige Cash (Robinson District) asked what a new bus engine or transmission costs.

Nichols responded that a new engine is being purchased this month. “A re-manufactured engine costs about $15,000. Counting labor, you’re talking about $17,000 to $18,000.”

Cox asked if using 25-year-old buses increases the likelihood of an accident.

“That’s entirely possible, but we work hard to maintain them and keep them in the best condition we can,” said Nichols. “Certainly, there’s a big difference in a 25-year-old bus and a 10-year-old bus.”

Cash said at the very least the older buses might be more apt to break down. Nichols agreed.

Barbour asked Nichols how long the county uses garbage trucks, and Nichols said they operate in the 15-year range.

“So, we use school buses longer than garbage trucks,” Barbour asked.

“Yes, sir,” Nichols replied.

“That shows the value of something,” Cox responded.

Discussion on the budget was followed by news the county expects the school board to pay the bills from the architectural firm studying the site, design and cost of constructing a new middle school.

According to School Superintendent Dr. Kevin Siers, an invoice from RRMM Architects for just over $58,000 was recently sent to the county for payment, but was rejected and sent back.

The $58,000 amount represents only about one-quarter of the expected $262,500 cost of the middle school study.

Siers said the school system had an agreement with the county when Peter Huber was county administrator that the county would pay for the study.

“They (the county) sent the bill back. They said they didn’t budget for it, we should pay it,” Siers said.

He asked the school board to pay the bill, and then we can “hash it out with the county later.”

Barbour proposed the school board pay the bill from capital improvement funds, and adopt a resolution requesting Pulaski County reimburse the school board the full amount of the invoice.

The board approved Barbour’s proposal.

“If the county doesn’t reimburse us, that will cut into the number of school buses we purchase this year,” Siers stated. “We plan to buy three buses. If we have to pay the full amount that would mean we would only be able to buy one.”