By LYDIA BERGLAR
As covered in last week’s issue of the Sentinel, the Dade County Board of Education voted to construct a wall, replacing the temporary tarp covering a hallway at Davis Elementary School. The project costs roughly $190,000 with a $50,000 contingency fund.
Superintendent Josh Ingle and Board Chair Carolyn Bradford sat down with the Sentinel to discuss financial and funding details about this project and the still-to-come reconstruction of the old Davis rock building.
Q: Have you received inquiries about construction at Davis?
Ingle: “Since the last board meeting, I’ve received a couple of emails from community members asking about when we’ll rebuild at Davis and why we’re sealing it off. I think board members received a couple more that I did not receive. Our board norms say that construction and facilities technically fall under the daily responsibilities of the superintendent, so the board should direct those inquiries to me, and I’ll craft a response. When I send that response, I copy every board member so that there’s clear transparency.”
Providing an overview of the topic, Ingle said, “Right now, Davis is sealed off with a tarp, and it’s been that way since the rock building was demolished. We left it that way with the intention of building back right away. We received over a half a million dollars from the state that the board could have used [with additional local funds] to gut it, keep the structure, and basically rebuild from the inside. When you use capital reimbursement funds, you’re committing yourself to 20 additional years [with that building]. The rock building was already 80 years old. At that time, it made more sense to demo the building and build something new. The quote that we were given pre-COVID was around $2.5 million. We went through the pandemic and then we put out an RFP last fall. We received two bids, and the price was over $4.5 million. The architect designed this end to the hallway knowing that the plan is to expand out.”
Q: How is the board keeping track of current prices?
Ingle: “Once a quarter, I communicate with our architect, Kenneth Harless with KRH Architects, through a phone call or email. I ask him what construction costs are looking like, and he’ll communicate with several different contractors, maybe in the Chattanooga area, Dalton area, and Cleveland area. He’s checking with several different ones to get a general ballpark. I share that information with the board. The price of lumber and wood has come down over the last several months, but the price of steel and concrete have not. This building would need a lot of steel and concrete and not much lumber.”
At the time of this interview, the most recent check in occurred in the spring.
Q: If prices do not decrease, at what point will the board decide to move forward with construction?
Ingle: “There is no definitive timeline. That’s up to the board as a whole. There’s a consensus that they want to build a building. The plan is to keep checking in, but we’re also paying close attention to the E-SPLOST funds.”
Ingle and Bradford explained that while (in Bradford’s words), “We can’t allocate all of the E-SPLOST funds to one project and then something major happens at another school and we can’t repair that,” they are watching the incoming E-SPLOST funds and delaying projects that are not immediate needs.
Clarifying his role, Ingle said, “The superintendent can’t vote. I make recommendations. The board chair, Miss Carolyn, asks for a motion and a second.”
Bradford added, “The board works as a whole. When people approach me out in the community about a problem, I listen and say, ‘Okay, I’ll take it to the superintendent and to the board.’ We work together as a governing board.”
Q: Are both the current wall project and the future rebuild funded by E-SPLOST?
Ingle: “Yes. E-SPLOST is a one cent sales tax that the voters vote on every five years. We’re collecting on E-SPLOST VI now, but we’re still spending on E-SPLOST V until we’ve spent all of that fund.”
In a short simplification, E-SPLOST can be used for certain repairs, additions, capital projects, and enhancements throughout the school system, while annual expenses (including salaries and fuel) are covered by the general fund.
Ingle continued, “In the 17 years I’ve been in Dade County, this board has always done a great job of preparing for the unforeseen. In my first year as the high school principal in 2011, tornadoes caused significant damage to Dade Elementary, and the board didn’t have to wait to save money because E-SPLOST was able to cover it. We want to be careful and prepare for those circumstances, but at the same time, we want to keep the buildings maintained.”
Q: How does the school system earn state funding for building projects?
Ingle: “In our capital outlay program with the state of Georgia, the Department of Education has an inventory of our buildings. We earn funding based on our needs. We don’t get to choose those needs. They have not identified a new structure at Davis as a need, therefore that new construction will be locally funded regardless of when we build it. In 20 years, if it needs a new roof, we can’t apply for capital reimbursement funds from the state department. It’s 100% locally funded.”
Q: Can you further explain the capital outlay and five-year facilities plan?
Ingle: “It’s based on your FTE (your full-time enrollment count) and Earned Instructional Units (EIUs – the number of classroom spaces you have available in your school district). They look at all classrooms we have available at both elementary schools, and they look at our student enrollment. If we have more classroom spaces available than what our enrollment actually shows, they say we don’t need any additional funding. They look at a five-year projection.”
When the current five-year plan was established, the rock building was still in the inventory. The state-determined EIU need was 56 covering both elementary schools, while the actual number was 102. Before demolition, the rock building contained 11 EUIs, meaning that the current total is 91 – well above the state’s assessed need of 56.
Ingle added, “The enrollment numbers are starting to climb, but they’re not climbing faster than the space we have available. We would have to see an exponential increase in our student population [for the new building to receive state funding]. However, one need that the Department of Education does identify as a need is the kitchen and cafeteria. It is a possibility that we could earn funds to, instead of building classrooms, potentially build a cafeteria. It is a need for Davis Elementary. The recent work that went into the floor wasn’t a long-term solution. Instead of building six classrooms, maybe we need to have conversations about if we can earn state funding, is a kitchen and cafeteria a greater need?”
Bradford added, “I think sometimes people don’t understand that you can do certain things with the general fund, you can do certain things with E-SPLOST, and you can do certain things with federal funds. We can’t just say, ‘We want to do this, we’re going to take it out of that federal fund.’ People will say things like, ‘They just do their own audits.’ That’s not true – we have a state auditor.”
Q: How can the public access E-SPLOST funding and spending documents?
Ingle: “All of our financials are on the state department of audits’ website. Loran Grasham gives an E-SPLOST and financial report every meeting. Through an open records request, she would certainly send a copy of the presentation.”
Q: In the fall, the school board agreed that the Davis building is the first priority before any other building projects. Can you confirm this?
Bradford: “We’re not building any other new buildings. In the past, the board has talked about a multi-purpose building and said we’d love to do that, but realistically, we know we can’t. We don’t even have a drawing plan for a multi-purpose building. With prices like they are now, there’s no way we could afford to build something like that.”
Q: What is the key takeaway you would like the public to hear?
Ingle: “This board has every intention to build a new building, but when that new construction happens, it is going to be locally funded and for years to come. We still have the old rock from the previous rock building sitting up there to use in the new construction. This governance team, we want to be wise stewards with the taxpayers’ resources, but also focus on the needs of our students.”