Funding of a $9 million shortfall on a new, 98,000-square-foot Jasper Middle School now lies with the Marion County Commission after the school board accepted a $33.9 million low bid last week while the spending deadline clock ticks on a $25 million loan for the project already in hand.
"The board approved submitting the low bid to the County Commission to make sure they are willing to fully fund it," Marion County Director of Schools Mark Griffith said Tuesday in a phone interview.
The winning bid from Cleveland, Tennessee-based Tricon Inc. was nearly $9 million more than the county borrowed earlier this year for the new school project, according to county officials. Chattanooga's T.U. Parks was the next lowest bidder at $35.75 million, and P&C Construction, also of Chattanooga, submitted a bid of $38.15 million.
Griffith said ground needs to be broken on the replacement school this fall to use the $25 million loan by January 2025, the deadline for the funds to be used.
"The county mayor and the current commission have bent over backward to help the school system in this entire process," he said. "Without them, we would not even have the $25 million appropriated."
According to Marion County Mayor David Jackson, the first loan of $25 million was acquired with a 1.73% interest rate, but interest rates have risen to 3.5-4% now, adding to the overall cost of the project.
"This $9 million is going to cost as much as the $25 million did in interest before it's all said and done," Jackson said Tuesday in a phone interview. He said the county needs to spend enough of the borrowed money by the end of the year to avoid a fine, too, so there is urgency to decision-making.
Jackson said he is unhappy about the late-developing situation and feels the school system has dragged its feet a bit getting the project to the table.
"They should have had this building three or four years ago," he said.
Jackson said school officials have been talking about building a new school for more than a decade.
"But what we need to take into consideration are the kids," Jackson said. "Regardless what our thoughts are, the most important thing is to make sure our kids have a good environment to learn in, and we need to try to provide the funding to get this building built."
Griffith said Jackson was right.
"To be quite honest, we have been looking at this thing since about 2015, and we certainly wish action had been taken before now," Griffith said in a follow-up interview.
He said he really wasn't sure what specifically delayed the project till 2022.
"But I concur with the mayor; it's been needed a long time," Griffith said. "I hope with that we can get it approved and start moving on it as soon as possible."
Griffith said he appreciated the mayor's and the commission's leadership getting the project near the starting point.
"At this stage, I think the timeline has got us locked in," Griffith said.
He also hopes there is a way to seek some cost-cutting once the project begins.
Plans call for the school to be built on more than 18 acres owned by the county at the intersection of State Route 28 and State Route 150 Extension, he said. The site is not far from the Jasper Elementary and Marion County High School campuses, and some property lines are shared.
The current Jasper Middle School dates back more than six decades when it was built as a high school. Jasper Middle is the oldest school building in the county, according to officials.
A recent state comptroller's report on capital spending for local school districts shows the financial struggles school districts face.
"As building costs continue to rise, districts recognize that delays in obtaining financing and construction approval can increase the final cost," the report released in May stated.
In the most recent inventory of the state's public school needs, the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations reported that local officials across the state projected a need for 69 new schools in the next five years at an average cost of $39 million each.
According to the report issued in May, school districts foresee rising prices and supply-chain problems dramatically affecting some projects. In fiscal year 2017-18, one district built a school for 900 students that cost $20 million.
"In 2021, the same size school might cost $30 million," the report states.
Jackson said he knows of no commission opponents to the new school project. Commissioners will consider the low bid and borrowing the $9 million at their regular monthly meeting Monday night, he said.