2014-10-15 / Front Page

Schools use millions in ‘leftovers’ for project

Elswick: ‘Citizens deserve transparency’
By Jim McConnell

Chesterfield County Schools Superintendent Marcus Newsome shows off the new technical center in late August. 
Page Dowdy/Chesterfield Observer Chesterfield County Schools Superintendent Marcus Newsome shows off the new technical center in late August. Page Dowdy/Chesterfield Observer Splashed with modern lighting, new-age office furniture, high-tech classrooms and a sprawling auditorium, the new Chesterfield Career and Technical Center opened to much fanfare in late August. With a fraction of the cost it would have taken to build new, the $31.3 million renovation of the former Clover High School on Hull Street Road, school officials said, was money well spent.

But now some are questioning exactly how the school system managed to find the money. The Board of Supervisors only committed $9 million toward the renovation, to repair the HVAC system, with the remaining $22.3 million coming from funds that were either leftover from other school projects or reallocated by the School Board.

During last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting, Midlothian resident Rodney Martin questioned whether school officials should be entrusted to oversee the $304 million in school revitalization projects approved by county voters in last November’s bond referendum. After all, he said, if they can cobble together millions from either overbudgeted or overestimated costs for previous capital projects, how can the public trust the school system’s $304 million estimate, which led to a hike in property taxes earlier this year?

What’s more, Martin asked why the school system was allowed to build a multimillion-dollar tech center without having it formally approved and listed in its five-year capital improvement plan.

“It was never vetted,” he told the board during the public comment period, sparking a lively discussion about the issue that continued for several minutes.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Jim Holland countered Martin’s claim, stating that the supervisors had approved converting old Clover Hill into a technical center by a 3-2 vote.

But fellow board member Dan Gecker couldn’t recall voting to allocate “the full amount” for the project, and County Administrator Jay Stegmaier confirmed that the board had only approved $9 million for overhauling the building’s HVAC system.

In his response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by county resident Brenda Stewart, school system spokesman Tim Bullis acknowledged that the “total renovation” of old Clover Hill was never included in the schools’ CIP.

“As we have discussed in the past, the funding for the renovation came from … savings reallocated from other completed [capital] projects,” Bullis wrote.

In a 2011 presentation to the Board of Supervisors’ Budget and Audit Committee and the Liaison Committee, which includes members of the Board of Supervisors and School Board, school officials broke down the funding sources for the new technical center. Approximately $6 million was originally allocated for construction of the new Clover Hill High. School officials estimated that project would cost $76 million, but the final price tag came in at $70 million.

The school system also redirected $4.5 million it had set aside to lease local office space for its Instructional Division Center, according to the 2011 presentation, as well as $3 million it had projected for needed repairs to the aging Fulghum Center, a school administration building.

School officials moved more than 200 central-office staff and administrators out of those two locations and into office space in the new tech center.

Another $3 million came from “savings” the school system had achieved on other previously completed capital projects, officials said in 2011.

Including the money approved for the HVAC overhaul at old Clover Hill, the school system was able to raise $25.5 million for the new tech center without running the project through the normal CIP process.

That covered all but $5.8 million of the tech center’s total cost.

During an email interview with the Observer last week, Bullis declined to offer specifics about where remaining the $5.8 million came from or identify any of the other capital projects from which the school system saved millions of dollars.

“The school board and school division have been open and transparent throughout the five-plus years that the evolution of the current Career and Technical Center@Hull has been discussed,” Bullis wrote. “It is not atypical, when there is a significant time difference between cost projection and actual build out, for project budgets to fluctuate due in large part to the market.”

Both Martin and Stewart questioned the wisdom of allowing school officials to set aside excess funding from capital projects, suggesting that such a system is potentially ripe for abuse.

“If they make an estimate of what they’re going to spend on each project and nobody holds them accountable, they could just overestimate everything,” Stewart said.

In a letter she sent to the Board of Supervisors last week, Stewart noted that she remains “extremely concerned about the likely waste and abuse involving the many millions of dollars in capital improvements that are planned for the school system. The time to get control of the process is now.”

Gecker, however, said that once supervisors allocate taxpayer money to the school system, they have no legal right to tell school leaders how to spend it.

Supervisor Steve Elswick suggested that he and his fellow board members should discuss that issue with County Attorney Jeff Mincks and start a dialogue to better understand how future capital projects will be funded.

Elswick also said it wouldn’t be “unreasonable” for taxpayers to expect the school system to return any unspent capital dollars to county coffers.

“Our citizens deserve transparency,” he added. “In the end, we’re spending their money. Whether you call it ‘extra money’ or ‘leftover money,’ they should have a say in how that money is spent.”

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