Both sides striving for quality education
On Oct. 3, the Kentucky Auditor of Public Accounts released a report on the "Harlan County High School Construction project." Since its release, locally, we have had one news article and two editorial responses.In response to these, it is important to review the findings of the auditor's report.
Although the review was conducted by the state auditor, it was not an accounting audit. The report does raise some significant questions about the management of this project by both our county school board and the state department of education.
This review was initiated, in part, because of a request by a concerned citizen, Benny Dale Coleman. It became clear that the final cost of the new Harlan County High School will approach $60 million, not the original $23 million.
How did the cost rise so dramatically? According to the auditor, the initial estimate "did not include site cost and architectural and engineering fees." (This problem was not unique to Harlan County.)
The county school board purchased 105.59 acres of land for the new school. This land was part of a tract of 488 acres. The 488-acre tract was assessed in 2003 by the Harlan County PVA at $90,350.
The land for the school was purchased for $1,075,000 or more than 5.5 times the assessed value. (The appraiser the board used was penalized because he was not a licensed commercial appraiser)
The state review found that the "school board did not always maintain original invoices for disbursements, the contractor did not mark his approval on all invoices presented for payment." School board policy stated that when selling surplus property they were required to use a certified appraiser. They used "a local vendor who was not a certified appraiser" to sell surplus pipe that was "initially purchased for $29,428 and was sold to a mining company for $14,400."
Although the projected number of students the school will serve has remained steady at 1,300, the size of the school was increased by 50,000 square feet or almost 27 percent.
Some have said that the increased cost was caused by Hurricane Katrina. According to the report, the hurricane added about 15 percent for each year the project was delayed. Based on the initial estimate of $23 million, three years later the cost should have risen to "only" about $35 million.
How has/will this significant increase in costs impact our education and county school system? In August of 2006 our school superintendent stated in a letter to the Kentucky School Facilities Construction Committee: "The county school system has exhausted its bonding potential, even to the point of bonding $3,245,000 of general fund monies." He went on to say that the county school board "had "no additional funds at our disposal to complete the building."
Then the county board estimated that they were nearly $13 million short of completing the project. Among the items they were looking to funding were $250,000 for a security camera system, $50,000 for basketball goals and $5 million for "athletic fields and facilities."
While additional funding has been found to open the school, without the athletic facilities, these higher costs have clearly placed a strain on the school system budget. According to documents obtained from the state, the new Wallins Elementary School has been "withdrawn" due to "lack of funds." Of the $1.6 million the board cut from the 2007-2008 budget, $400,000 was for staff.
Junior Deaton wrote on Nov. 3, "the school bus drivers, maintenance workers and cooks etc. were rallying for public support on their behalf toward convincing the board of education to recognize their need for occasional raises in their wages." Do these increasing costs for the new school provide another obstacle for these workers to gain a living wage?
From the beginning, one sad by-product of this project has been the response from the central office when questions are raised. In the above-mentioned letter to the state our superintendent says: "I think it would be worth mentioning that our goal of providing a quality education for our students in a modern facility has not met with countywide approval."
Unless it can be proven otherwise, why can't we all assume that we all have "quality education" as a goal? We differ on the means to achieving this goal.