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In an open letter to Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson and school board Chairman Steve Highlander, UnifiEd called Tuesday for the Hamilton County Board of Education to initiate an audit of the school system's capital needs and the creation of a multi-year capital plan.
The move comes after the Hamilton County Commission's action last week to allocate $100 million of new money for school capital projects.
The letter from the local education advocacy nonprofit states that the new money is not sufficient to fully fund all the immediate capital needs in schools, which have been estimated in recent years from approximately $180 million up to double that amount. No definitive dollar value is known because a comprehensive facility assessment has not been conducted, according to a news release from UnifiEd.
To: Dr. Bryan Johnson and Chairman Steve Highlander
CC: Joe Galloway, Karitsa Jones, Kathy Lennon, Tiffanie Robinson, Joe Smith, David Testerman, Rhonda Thurman, Joe Wingate
Dear Dr. Johnson and Chairman Highlander:
The county commission's move last week to provide $100 million to the school system for capital projects was bold and encouraging. However, that amount will not come close to fully funding all immediate capital needs for our schools. Estimates for replacing, expanding, and repairing our schools have varied in recent years from $180 million up to double that amount, though no definitive dollar value is known because a comprehensive facility assessment has not been conducted.
As a result, UnifiEd calls for a capital audit and multi-year plan to ensure increased efficiency in spending and decisions that achieve equitable distribution based on need rather than politics. Further, such an audit and capital plan are fundamentally necessary to restore and maintain the public's confidence that their tax dollars are well spent.
The audit should provide an unbiased assessment of facility safety issues due to deferred maintenance, school capacity and population growth trends, building quality, and estimated cost to repair or replace schools.
The findings of this audit should be used to create a multi-year plan that prioritizes projects that:
Address safety issues due to deferred maintenance,
Result in operational savings that can be reinvested into the classroom,
Reduce the concentration of students living in poverty in certain schools, and/or
A long-term capital plan was also recommended by a group of business and community leaders whose independent review of school system spending and report on recommendations for efficiencies was released this spring. The group applied approaches utilized by the largest corporations and smallest businesses alike to ensure fiscal responsibility, and UnifiEd backs their best practice recommendations on this issue.
UnifiEd, on behalf of the community, therefore calls on the Board of Education to pass a resolution as soon as possible to hire an external audit firm or allocate dedicated staff to perform a thorough review of the state of our schools' facilities and needs. We further call for the Board to commit to making the resulting audit report publicly available and using it as the basis of its decisions on allocation of funds for capital projects.
Executive Director, UnifiEd
"Without an audit of needs and a multi-year plan, decisions on capital projects will be subject to political maneuvering rather than an equitable distribution based on actual need," said Jonas Barriere, UnifiEd executive director. "Accountability measures need to be in place to restore public confidence that their tax dollars are well spent with this new money allocated by the county commission."
UnifiEd says such an audit should provide an unbiased assessment of facility safety issues because of deferred maintenance, student capacity and population growth trends, building quality, and estimated cost to repair or replace schools. Audit findings should then be the basis of a multi-year capital plan.
A multi-year capital plan and budget was also backed by a group of business and community leaders whose independent review of school system spending and report on recommendations for efficiencies was released this spring.
On the need for a multi-year capital plan, Barriere said, "It's hard to justify investments in year one that will produce savings or results in year two or three or ten without a long-term plan."
The letter calls on the Board of Education to pass a resolution as soon as possible to hire an external audit firm or allocate dedicated staff to perform a thorough review of the state of the schools' facilities and needs. It further calls for the board to commit to making the resulting audit report publicly available and using it as the basis of its decisions on allocation of funds for capital projects.
The Hamilton County Department of Education, in a statement issued Tuesday, said a complete facility plan for schools, which includes assessments on new construction and additions, current building needs, mechanical, electrical and plumbing needs, and athletic repairs, was completed in January and highlights needs facing local schools.
"The Hamilton County Department of Education looks forward to tackling some of the $200+ million in deferred maintenance and construction needs with the funds created after the Hamilton County Commission voted 8 to 1 to approve a resolution keeping the millage rate at its current assessment," the department said. "HCDE Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson will work closely with the HCDE School Board to decide which projects on the comprehensive facilities plan will benefit from the additional revenues generated."