School was in session at the County Commission meeting Monday night, when a full-house of Franklin High School students, parents and alumni stressed to their local leaders the importance of funding an expansion and renovation measure for their school.
With a 16-4 vote, the commission approved $9.29 million for a renovation and expansion of Franklin High School. However, funding issues loom over the resolution’s passage, as they have over all the recent and numerous school capital-expense funding requests. A property tax increase now seems practicably inevitable in next July’s county budget.
FHS parents, students and alumni, packed the auditorium of the county administrative complex for the meeting, and they lined up to speak, one after the other in three-minute allotments for nearly an hour.
In March, the plan was only very partially funded. All but $1.5 million, to keep the Columbia State Community College (CSCC) project on track, was cut to be funded later. The majority of the commission, concerned about how to pay the funds without raising taxes, made decisions on the basis of funding the lowest possible amount without affecting the project’s timeline. In the meantime, supplemental funding methods have been explored– such as the Education Impact Fee, the legality of which builders and developers are questioning in a lawsuit ) and the current plan that could raise sales taxes slightly.
On Monday, an amendment paring the funding down to $2.04 million, again funding only the CSCC project and a very small part of the rest, almost punted the issue again.
“[The amended amount] will keep the project rolling but give us time to find out if the sales tax is going to work and if the impact fee is going to stand up,” 5th District Com. Tom Little said. “Otherwise we are guaranteeing a property tax increase, which I am not opposed to, to fund it, but I want to know the options before I approve it.”
Other commissioners, however, saw the issue differently.
“Aren’t we already committed, once we’ve already approved this much? We are going to do it, the question is just where will the money come from,” 8th District Com. Barb Sturgeon said, in response to Little. “I still see no reason not to fund the whole thing, and when we know more later . . . “ Sturgeon was interrupted by applause.
The community made it clear that they would not happily accept a part measure, at times being warned to keep it to a “quiet roar” by Chairman Com. Jack Walton.
“I am here because it is the right thing to do,” Ben Menko, a Franklin sophomore and goalkeeper for the varsity soccer team, said. “I can’t add a lot to the arguments . . . but the most important argument I can provide is just that it is the right thing to do.”
A number of other students spoke, asking for locker rooms, tennis courts, room for musicians, for theater, more safety, more practice fields and, above all, for the commission to vote to fully fund the request now, which the school board approved, for the second time in the last 12 months, in August.
Of the funds, $1.72 million went to CSCC, and $7.5 million for the following projects:
-Changing the front entrance to better connect with existing parking lots
-A 12,000-square foot athletic building, including a girls locker room.
-Putting artificial turf down for the football field.
-Expanding the track from six to a TSSAA regulation eight lanes
-A new access road to the campus, that would have connected it to Mack Hatcher Parkway and cost about $2 million, was on the November 2016 intent to fund the board passed but not on this one. However, that money will now be needed to complete the other renovations.
9th District Com. Todd Kaestner supports full funding. He said he was worried that the commission may balk and not pass the funds in the future, when it could no longer defer without serious negative affects to the project.
“Franklin High is a centerpiece school of our system,” Kaestner said. “Our duty to our constituents and taxpayers is not to never raise taxes. Our duty is to be efficient and, in the words of Ben Menko, to do the right thing.
Columbia State Community College Campus Expansion History
The district obtained the deed to the 7.4-acre former CSCC property last fall and the building on it, both of which the county had previously purchased from CSCC, for use as classroom space.
The 74,000-square-foot facility will add up to 416 students to the capacity of Franklin High School, which is adjacent to the property, according to WCS Superintendent Dr. Mike Looney.
The nine existing classrooms at the former CSCC campus will be reconfigured.
The current Franklin High School is over capacity. WCS high schools as a whole, are over capacity combined by about the amount of an additional high school. WCS’s current master plan aims to increase high school capacity to 2,200 across the board. Building expansions rather than new schools, such as is ongoing now at Brentwood, Page and Franklin, is a cheaper option.
Franklin High School’s current capacity is 1,580 and its current enrollment is nearly 200 students more than that.
WCS projections show this will only get worse, with up to 20,000 new students projected over the coming 10 years, according to a county consultant study.