PRICES FOR THE EASTSIDE Elementary School new construction and renovation has come in much higher than projected. The cost of the project, estimated at $8.7 million, may result in some athletic projects being postponed.
Members of the Grady County Board of Education have repeatedly said that they follow the advice of the school system’s finance officer when it comes to spending money and as the board considers priorities for upcoming projects that practice may be put to the test.
On Tuesday night, the school board received a report on the cash on hand and available for projects to be funded with Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax proceeds. The report was sobering.
Finance Officer Dan Broome prepared the cash analysis that was provided to the board this week and with the cost of modernization of Eastside Elementary School coming in much higher than originally projected, the school system is $830,787.41 short of having enough money to complete the new Cairo High School ROTC building, pay for new computers for teachers as part of a system wide technology project, the second phase of Whigham Elementary School improvements, much less the Eastside project.
Costs for Eastside modernization based on figures from the school system’s architect Greg Smith is $8.7 million, up from approximately $6 million school system officials had originally estimated.
At a Feb. 20 workshop to set priorities for ESPLOST funded projects the board indicated a desire for some athletic projects to be tackled sooner rather than later. However, the board also indicated that academics come first and if the money was not available projects like artificial turf at West Thomas Stadium and a new track complex at Washington Middle School would have to be delayed.
At that meeting last month the unknown factor controlling everything was learning the cost of the Eastside project. Grady County School Superintendent Dr. Kermit Gilliard and his administrative staff met with architect Smith last week and learned the total cost of the project had come in at $8.7 million.
Finance Officer Broome said the administrative staff would be meeting with the architect to determine what value engineering could be done on the project how it could be scaled down to get closer to the system’s original estimates.
The Eastside project includes some major renovations of existing facilities in addition to the construction of a new cafeteria/kitchen, additional classrooms, and a new administrative building and media center.
Dr. Gilliard said one option if the board’s desire was to fast track the turf and stadium improvements at Cairo High School and the new track facility at Washington would be to limit the Eastside project to renovation of existing buildings and delay the new construction portion of the project.
“Is the cafeteria and administrative area sufficient if we had to scale back?” Board member Derrick Majors asked. Dr. Gilliard responded that the facilities are currently being used and could continue to be used, but he noted that unless moving forward with the total project there would not be any additional classrooms available at Eastside if the project was scaled back.
The superintendent said that his plan would be to complete the Eastside project as well as construction of a new Grady Education Center, and the Southside Elementary School cafeteria/kitchen project and classroom addition before moving on the athletic projects.
“That would be my priority and if you want to move the track and stadium up, I’m bendable,” Dr. Gilliard said.
Board member Gerald Goosby asked about the condition of the Eastside facilities scheduled to be replaced by new construction. Dr. Gilliard reminded Goosby and the board that the building had originally been constructed in 1956 and had been moved to Cairo from Calvary.
Board chairman Teresa Gee Hardy said, in her opinion, educational facilities should be the board’s priority.
Dr. Gilliard said the board was not being asked to make any decisions at this time and he said he was not to prepared to make any recommendations. He invited Maintenance Director Dave Mitchell to update the board on meetings he had with prospective turf vendors last week, but the board chairman cut him off.
“I’m more interested in discussing where we are going to come up with the funds to complete Eastside then I’d like to talk about turf,” she said.
Board member Jeff Worsham questioned why the Northside Elementary School cafeteria/kitchen project was not included on the revised list and Dr. Gilliard pointed out that it is being funded with ESPLOST 4 funds, not ESPLOST 5. According to Broome, all of the ESPLOST 3 projects have been completed and the only projects to be funded with ESPLOST 4 are the Northside project and the proposed Shiver Elementary School gym project.
Broome said that the system has sufficient funds on hand now to complete the Northside project, but he would have to wait and see how much the system collects between now and the end of August when ESPLOST 4 expires to determine the total amount of money available for the Shiver project.
Board member John White asked for Broome to make projections based on the downward turn in the economy as a result of the corona virus. Broome reported that February collections were approximately $204,000 down from an average of about $232,0000, but he said February’s collections are typically lower. Broome said it was difficult to know just what would happen over the next several months.
Dr. Gilliard said the board always had the option of utilizing some of the school system’s cash reserves, but he reminded them it was the system’s strong cash position in previous years that allowed the school system to maintain staffing levels and to eliminate furlough days while other neighboring systems were letting people go and continued to have furlough days. “I would not recommend us spending it down not knowing what the economy will do,” Dr. Gilliard said.
“I’d love to see everything on the list. I’m a big supporter of getting turf, but there are steps we have to take to get there. When the recommendation is made I want to make sure we are taking the right steps. We don’t have to make a decision tonight,” Board member Majors said.
Board member Jeff Worsham, who first broached the topic of turf at the high school football field, said at the Feb. 20 workshop that this year would be the 100th anniversary of football at C.H.S., but he admitted he had not verified it and there was some question to the actual date of the centennial. However, he said that was irrelevant and had nothing to do with the need for turf.
He said the bottom line was turf was needed to provide a suitable playing field for varsity, junior varsity and middle school football and soccer teams as well as a place for r the high school band to practice whether it was installed the year, next year or five years from now. “I’d be the first to say academics comes first,” Worsham said, but he noted that extracurricular activities and athletics are all part of fostering well-rounded students. “We need turf or need something to be done out there,” Worsham added.
“It won’t be this year. I’d love to have turf, but I also want to have a beautiful facility which includes new seating and lighting. Based on these numbers we need to take our time and not rush it. I want all of it. I want everything on this list, but I’m only one vote,” Chairwoman Hardy said.
Majors challenged Hardy over her comments. “That’s a strong statement to say we’re not going to do it,” he said.
The projected estimate for the stadium project, which in addition to turf, would include new visitors bleachers and new lighting is estimated at $2 million. The cost of turf alone is approximately $800,000 to $1 million and it has to be replaced every 10-12 years based on use.
Board member Goosby asked how up-to-date were the estimates on the stadium upgrade and Mitchell said that he had not obtained a quote of bleachers in about five years and that bid was not for a total replacement of the visitors stands. “So it could be higher,” Goosby said.
Worsham warned that anytime projects are delayed the cost is likely to increase. Mitchell concurred and said that prices are changing every day. “Before the hurricane we were building buildings at $245 per square foot and now the cost is $370 per square foot. It goes up every day,” Mitchell said.
Broome said that was a major factor in the Eastside project and attributed to the architect’s estimate being so much more than the school system had originally projected.
“Regardless what we will do some people will agree with us and some will disagree. That’s just part of life,” Worsham said.
The District 1 board member went on to address the board being split regarding the timing of the proposed athletic projects. “We’ve got a cohesive board and it has been for the last eight years. No one issue is going to change that. We have the ability to get along and agree to disagree, but we still will be a cohesive board. We’ve got a good thing going and we don’t need to ruin it.”
Board chairwoman Hardy agreed, but said she was a believer in being realistic, transparent, open and honest with people.
Board member Goosby asked what would be the plan moving forward. Broome said the administrative team would be working with the architect to reduce the cost of the Eastside project. In the meantime, Dr. Gilliard said that the contractor is set to begin the renovation work at Eastside on May 23.
The school system will begin receiving ESPLOST 5 collections this September and it will take 5-6 months of collections to build up a sufficient source of money to make the bond payments on the debt incurred to fast-track the capital projects. Once the money for the debt payment has been banked, the system would then wait for collections over the next five to six months in order to have the funding to move forward on the project list, which means unless the board takes different action, it would be a year or longer before athletic projects would be undertaken.