Letter: School division exhibits poor budget planning
The Gloucester Board of Supervisors voted 4 to 2 on Aug. 6 (Gloucester Point representative Chris Hudson was absent) to proceed with a plan to sell bonds in order to finance $12 million of the $28 million price tag for the new Page Middle School. They also voted to sell an additional $5 million worth of bonds to pay for air conditioning and roof repairs at existing schools.
During the presentations to the supervisors, those in the room learned that over the course of the bond’s life (think of it as a mortgage) the county’s taxpayers would have to pay back, if ideal interest rates are available at the time of sale this fall, over $9 million in interest. That’s in addition to the principal amount. The total bill will be over $26 million.
The temperament at the hearing and meeting was that the $12 million couldn’t be avoided inasmuch as the old Page school has been demolished by Kiser and the school board and the construction on Walker has begun. I think some used the phrase, "we gave our word," to buttress that point. But several citizens and both of the supervisors who voted "No" had a hard time supporting the $5 million borrowing for "replacements and repairs." I’m with them and the five citizens who spoke against the idea after one initial affirmative plea. But it passed despite our frugal sensibilities. One supervisor privately bemoaned having to explain all of this to his constituents when their property tax bills are increased to in effect purchase an "automobile with a 20-year loan." Someone pointed out to the supervisors that the new air conditioning system and the supervisors themselves are likely to be dead before the loan is paid off. Arguments all for naught.
On a night when elected officials proceeded with a process that will cost all of us money that we’re not likely to have, only five citizens spoke against it, and the room was hardly full. Out of the 18,000 who typically vote in this county at election time, fewer than 50 made the effort to attend this very expensive meeting. What’s that say about participatory, consensual government? I think it says that generally people trust those in office. That trust is misplaced.
Also in the room that night was superintendent of schools Ben Kiser, and his assistant superintendent Mr. Hutchinson and two managers from the school facilities department. Their four combined annual salaries are in excess of $370,000. It took three of them to clarify a question on the age of the mechanical equipment during the discussion. From their comments one could determine their job is to monitor and record the deterioration of the public’s property. And observers would be correct if they assumed that inadequate monetary reserves have been and continue to not be allotted in the annual operating school budget for the replacement of equipment that everyone concedes has a determinable, useful life. That’s irresponsible.
With an annual school operating budget of $59 million, it is hard to imagine that provisions and allowances for the replacement of mechanical equipment are not being made. Other things might have to be cut back but that’s the job of responsible management. Maybe one or both of the assistant superintendents would have to go and Kiser or his replacement would have to roll up their sleeves.
Before he voted to issue the additional $5 million in debt obligations for the Gloucester taxpayers, supervisor Carter Borden is quoted as saying "there’s an old adage that if you let equipment go too long it will ‘nickel and dime you to death.’" That also might be said for certain supervisors … and some others.