Observed Monday by two Franklin County Sheriff’s deputies, the school board quickly eliminated an agenda item laying out cost estimates to purchase modular units to house district students at the Pomona campus — an agenda item many in the community viewed as the board trying to consolidate the district in spite of the patrons’ overwhelming June 4 vote against the bond issue that would have centralized West Franklin’s campus.
The board’s prompt motion to delete the item, however, did little to assuage patron’s vehement and vocal opposition to it.
“That this was even suggested is ridiculous,” patron Dee Short said in a fiery address during the meeting’s comment session. “You had a survey that we didn’t want this thing. You had a school board election where four of you were voted out. And you also had the bond election. That this [item] was even on the agenda at all is ridiculous. How many times does this board have to realize that it’s a new day? ... It’s ridiculous the way you guys wasted our money. You guys have got to stop this stuff and don’t spend any more money until the new board comes into power.”
Before the June 4 bond election, which failed with more than 70 percent of voters’ opposition, Thayne Bush, school board president, said, he asked for cost estimates to house all students on the Pomona campus. Following the request, West Franklin Superintendent Dotson Bradbury itemized more than $2.57 million to improve the Pomona campus and centralize the district, $1 million of which called for 10 modular units for two classes per unit.
Bush indicated at the meeting that he intended to remove the item from the agenda, and that there were no plans to vote on it. Bush added that he asked Bradbury to compile the estimates as a hypothetical scenario if the bond issue failed.
“The reason I asked was to still get the cost savings per year of $500,000 without a bond proposal,” Bush said, responding to a patron’s question. “I thought, as a board, we owed that to our patrons to at least talk about it. There was never any talk about voting on it. There were never any proposals. There were never any bids. These were just numbers for discussion. ... Right after the last board meeting, I called Mr. Bradbury and I said ‘What if? What would that cost?’ He got those numbers and that’s what these are.”
The item drew enough patrons that the meeting, which initially was planned for the West Franklin district office, was forced to change venues to West Franklin High School to accommodate the about 90 people who showed up at the school board gathering. Several patrons addressed the school board during its comment session, many thanking the body for removing the consolidation item while others questioned the item’s rationale. Several other patrons asked if the board considered students’ safety when mulling the plan to purchase the modular units.
The district has about $4 million in reserve funds, Bradbury said. More than a third of those funds are designated funds — such as $1 million for special education — that cannot be used for maintenance projects, he added, further complicating the new board’s job of allocating limited funding for district facilities.
“The patrons have spoken, and the task now is to attend to those infrastructures with the resources we have,” Bradbury said Monday. “We don’t have enough resources to attend to all of them. And so the challenge for the board in July is which of those items are we going to attend to. ... They may choose to entirely start over. They may choose to add to those items. They may choose to subtract from these items. But I think what patrons are waiting for at this point is some action. ... It has been stated that we have $4 million, and we do, but we can’t spend $4 million on [maintenance].”
A previously complied list of maintenance projects for West Franklin buildings, including technology upgrades, would cost about $6.4 million, according to school district estimates. Board members previously indicated they were only comfortable spending about $2 million from reserve funds on such projects, so they could retain some funds in case of emergencies or unforeseen events.
Asked how he plans to reunify the West Franklin school district after the schismatic, $14.3-million bond issue failed, Bradbury said the new board in July must set concrete goals and work toward them with its actions.
“This has been the most divisive event. It has, as one patron who wrote in the paper said, turned father against son, brother against brother,” Bradbury said. “We need to have another goal-setting session. With the board established, what are the goals and what do they want to see accomplished both next year, the following year and the year after ... so we can have a plan so when we make decisions we can look at those goals and say, ‘Where does that fit in our goals?’”
Ultimately, Bradbury said, the new board faces tough decisions on which facilities will receive improvements. With limited funding, he said, not all patrons will see the improvements they’d like.
“It’s a matter of the board deciding what’s the No. 1 priority? What’s the No. 2 priority? And how much can we spend?” he said. “Patrons across the community are waiting to see what we will attend to, and once we start that project of attending to those across the district — at Williamsburg, at Appanoose and at the [Pomona] campus — we will begin to see some relationships rebuilt. I’m not so naive to think that’s going to happen like that [snapping his fingers], but I believe it can happen.”
Bond issue canvassing
The official canvassing of West Franklin’s bond issue yielded no surprises. Of the 1,918 patrons who cast ballots, 1,349 voted no, accounting for slightly more than 70 percent of the vote, according to the Franklin County Clerk’s office.