By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
Although members of the Escambia County Board of Education and county school officials discussed several topics during a May 10 workshop at the Atmore Central Office, the discussions kept coming back to the same thing, the school system’s finances.
“I know you guys had questions about finances [at the last meeting], where we were as far as bonds and things of that nature,” said Chief Schools Financial Officer Rochelle Richardson at the onset of the workshop.
During the board’s April 27 session, Richardson announced the system’s unreserved bank balance was $12.3 million, including $7 million from settlement of a lawsuit filed on behalf of W.S. Neal High (WSN).
“It looks like we got $7 million for W.S. Neal High, but that’s not the case,” the CSFO said. “We received $7 million, but $2.5 million of that money actually belonged back to the board. So, prior to getting the insurance money, the board had spent out $2.5 million of their money to do things at Neal High School after the storm.”
Deputy of Operations Shawn Goolsby said most of the repairs to WSN have been completed.
“What we still have to do is fix those storm doors that were messed up by the storm,” he said. “We did find out yesterday that the state is not going to make us change all the hardware on the doors like we thought they were. The only doors that are going to have to be changed are the ones for ingress and egress. So, two doors are going to have to be changed and one door added. We’re not thinking it’s going to cost near what we thought it was going to cost.”
Goolsby said he has been able to reduce the projected cost of the door-replacement project from “over a half-million dollars,” to a figure the board could better afford.
“I’m going to say (it will cost) no more than $200,000, and that’s high, a worse-case scenario,” he said. “They’ve got to saw-cut through block and install two metal frames and two doors. It was 22 (doors) originally, and around $750,000 was the bid. They wanted us to tear them all out; they wanted to take out the smaller frames and all the doors.”
Richardson tried again to explain the reserve balance, and the lawsuit money’s impact on that balance.
“I know you keep saying that we had $7 million, but when you look at our bank account, it’s not reflecting that number,” she said. “You have to think about it; before we got that, we paid $2.5 million of the board’s money up front, and we reimbursed the board, so I want to say, it was like $4.6 million. So, I’m looking at $541,000 that’s left for Neal High School.”
Discussion then turned to curriculum, and Assistant Superintendent Michele Collier said cycle assessments will allow county education officials the information on which changes could be based.
A digital calendar has been established, and teachers at each grade level have devised curriculum plans that local officials feel will be valuable tools for all teachers.
“We call it a one-stop shop,” Collier said. “Everything will be there, from their curriculum to their lesson, to their assessment.”
Superintendent of Education Michele McClung announced that implementation of a new, music-based program called Vocabulary has proven effective in helping students at the lower grade levels to learn, even if they are under the direction of a substitute teacher.
“It’s set up for kids, and it’s really phenomenal,” McClung said. “It has these amazing lessons that’s actually being incorporated. If we have a substitute, it’s really easy for the substitute to look on the calendar and see what kids should learn that day.
“It also really helps the teachers stay focused on what they need to teach, not what they like to teach or want to teach, but what they are supposed to be teaching. The resources we’ve imbedded in it will help build their confidence if they’re unsure of what they’re supposed to be teaching.”
The WSN lawsuit money was brought to discussion again and sparked several separate conversations between board members and school officials, each going on at once.
Richardson explained to the board that an ongoing software change has slowed down the reimbursement process at the state level, causing a backup of funds that are due to local schools.
“Why is it taking so long?” asked District 7 BOE member Coleman Wallace, to which Richardson replied that, “the state is playing catch-up with monitoring.”
Wallace said BOE members have a difficult task in allocating money to various projects because, “with no exit point, any information you have to respond to, it’s tough.”
District 3’s Mike Edwards agreed, asking: “How are we going to make any decisions when we have a $4 million difference?” [in the financial picture].
McClung replied that the system has to use its local funds, then seek reimbursement from the state or federal government.
“We’ve been trying to project how much more do we have left, and a lot of that is in salaries,” the superintendent said. “Then we have to front that and request reimbursement. It looks like we’ve left a lot of money on the table, and we pretty much have, but it’s kind of unfair that (the state) expects us to have the reserve.”
Wallace said the uncertainty makes it almost impossible to accurately project how much money could be spent where.
“That’s why I’m wondering at what point we need to start talking about projects,” he said. “If we’re still paralyzed by the past, whatever we say is not realistic. If we’re going to talk about improvements, and particularly financial improvements, we need real numbers.”
Board Chair Danny Benjamin agreed, saying “we have to have the wisdom not to enter into projects that we really don’t have the real numbers to do.”
In other discussion, Goolsby announced that the land the BOE is buying on which to build a new Flomaton Elementary School and a centralized career technical center, passed the geologic survey on which the deal hinged.
There was also discussion of the system’s bonded indebtedness and bus lease.
“We have the 2013 bonds that we refinanced in 2021 and we have a bus debt that expires in 2027,” she said. “So right now, for Fiscal 2022, we will pay $1.175 million in principle for those three bonds. In interest, we have paid $478,150.26.”
There was also discussion of the county’s bus situation and various other topics, some of which will likely be brought to the floor during this week’s regular meeting (Thursday, May 18, 4:30 p.m., Central Office, Brewton) and subsequent meetings.