Macon County’s schools will get a long-awaited upgrade, but its taxpayers are going to have to pay extra for it.
County commissioners voted last Tuesday to raise the property tax rate by one-and-a-half cents to build a $15 million elementary school. The new tax rate will go into effect next year. The move will also fund several smaller school construction projects contained in a 10-year capital plan.
County Manager Jack Horton said the plan was a conservative way to accomplish much-needed school improvements.
“These are what I would call essential and necessary construction projects following the long-term school renovation plan,” Horton said. “There aren’t any frills here. This is as conservative as we could come up with.”
The construction of North Macon School will consolidate the two existing elementary schools of Cowee and Iotla, in addition to accommodating around 70 students now attending East Franklin Elementary.
As a result of the consolidation, Cowee’s grade school will go out of service and the current building at Iotla will be razed so the new school can be built in its place.
In November 2007, the public narrowly voted down a $42 million bond issue for school construction. Plans called for building two new schools — one for grades K-4 and one for grades five and six — and doing away with three smaller schools of Cullasaja, Iotla and Cowee.
The bond measure failed by a near miss, but the school board and county commissioners decided to move forward with the construction anyway. A fifth-and sixth-grade school and the expansion at East Franklin were completed, but the new North Macon elementary was temporarily put on hold due to budget shortfalls related to the recession.
The commissioners’ decision to fund the construction of the North Macon School through an increase in property taxes also included plans to allocate $1.8 million for the Nantahala K-12 school, to be obtained through a low-interest loan program made available through the stimulus package. The county will also move $1.3 million from school reserve to fund repairs and renovations at Franklin High School.
Commissioners acknowledged that raising taxes during a recession was risky. But with construction costs at an all-time low and the availability of attractive interest rates through federal stimulus loans, the county’s remaining school facilities needs could be accomplished at an affordable price tag.
“The need has been there, and construction costs are at an all-time low,” Horton said. “The stimulus money and the low-interest loans make it attractive to do these projects now.”
Gambling on the economy
Commissioner Jim Davis, who represented the county board alongside Chairman Ronnie Beale on the school liaison committee, said the vote to raise taxes was a calculated risk.
“It is a gamble. We’re gambling that the economy is not going to get worse, and we don’t know that,” Davis said. “Macon County is in an extremely good position to weather the storm, and I don’t want to jeopardize that. There’s a reason why we have a good fund balance and that’s because our commissioners have historically been careful about how they spend the county’s money.”
School Superintendent Dan Brigman said the funding plan approved by the board will make the district safer and provide a better learning environment. With the construction of the North Macon School, children across the district won’t be limited in their choices of school because of capacity issues.
“It’s basically going to set up a situation where there is a school choice option with capacity not being a barrier,” Brigman said.
In addition, Brigman said the district would save $250,000 per year in operating costs by consolidating the schools, as well as making it free of mobile classrooms for the first time in years.
Brigman said the board’s vote last week was the culmination of years of effort by the school liaison committee that he regards as a triumph of cooperation between the school board and the county. The school liaison committee incorporated two members from the school board, two from the county board, and financial and executive officers from the district and the county.
“There has been a partnership existing between the two boards that is like nothing I’ve experienced in the six counties and two states I’ve served as an educator,” said Brigman.
But while the vote was unanimous in the end, a lively debate arose over whether the board was going far enough to improve the county’s school facilities.
Commissioner Bobby Kuppers argued passionately that an additional half cent tax increase could allow the county to renovate the gym and install artificial turf on the football field at Franklin High as well.
Brigman said the 52-year-old gym is too small to accommodate community events and the natural turf field couldn’t take the traffic of year-round use for student and community activities.
“I think we’re gambling that we’re at the bottom of the curve. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be talking about a cent and a half,” Kuppers said. “The only reason I’m bringing this up is I want the seed to be planted that for a half a cent more we should finish the job.”
Beale replied that while the high school might need the renovations, they weren’t part of the liaison committee’s discussion.
“We have met for four years to figure out a plan that would work and never has anyone mentioned a gym,” said Beale. “I’m not saying it’s not needed. I’m not saying that at all.”
Davis said he was already uncomfortable raising taxes when taxpayers were hurting, and he didn’t believe the athletic facilities should be prioritized the same way as instructional facilities.
“My comfort zone is stretched to go ahead and build this school now to raised taxes 1.5 cents,” Davis said. “We’re trying to make up for a lack of planning in the past.”