I received a letter Tuesday from UnifiEd with a recommendation about what the Board of Education should do with the $100 million allocated to schools as part of county Mayor Jim Coppinger's tax plan, which the county commission approved on Sept. 6. The grassroots group seeking to engage the public around public education in Hamilton County is not alone in their inquiries.
There was no mistaking the desire for urgency when I stood with Mayor Coppinger in support of the new revenue the day before the commission vote. The need for money to address new schools and school maintenance was very plain to see when anybody looks at the needs list, which I first did in February. It was just common sense that something had to be done.
There is no one more ready to get started fixing schools, building schools or adding facilities than the nine members of the school board, and we will be ready when Superintendent Bryan Johnson outlines the process and timeline for making these critical decisions. I was ready to have a meeting right after the commission vote. Then I received the letter from UnifiEd.
Folks like me need to talk to UnifiEd's staff to really understand all that was included in the request to the school board, and then get some advice from people I trust, such as the mayor and my county commissioner, Greg Martin. What did jump out to me was that the letter was asking us to stop and think bigger rather than spending $100 million as fast as we can.
That makes sense to me. Back in February, the board worked through a priorities list of schools' capital needs, then we discussed the list with commissioners in a joint meeting. None of the people in those discussions really believed money was coming. But now that it has, I am just not sure that list can and should be the final word.
I don't think anyone on the board would object to a multi-year capital plan as well as an accompanying funding strategy. All board members want to spend money to keep schools safe and to build schools that address population trends in the county. All of us are taxpayers and we surely want to inspire confidence in all taxpayers. After all, it's been a decade since we made an investment in schools and getting it right is important. So, the idea along the lines suggested by UnifiEd may be a good thing.
However, if the problem is so obvious and the fix so clear, how can we wait? If your plumbing is leaking under the sink, you are not going to wait six months to fix it.
We need to produce a multi-year plan and move immediately on certain projects.
For instance, most everyone agrees that Harrison Elementary School needs to be replaced by a school large enough that it consolidates three schools. A friend said it was a two-year project to build a school by the time you select the architect, design the school and build the new facility. So why would we wait even a month to give our go-ahead on that project? Dr. Johnson can bring us a list of critical items — electrical fixes, heating and air units or other items from the February list — and the school board can act.
At the same time, we should consider a process with a fair and firm deadline that leads to healthy, public discussions around where the next growth school should be, what athletic facilities are needed or what schools need to be renovated. These items can be placed into the multi-year plan. Projects that the board says are worthy but cannot be funded by this bond issue can go into future years.
What taxpayers will see is a school board and county commission working together to move quickly on the obvious things and contemplating what capital needs will be over the next five years. That sends the right message.
Joe Smith is the District 3 Board of Education representative.