The Guntersville City Council and the Guntersville City School Board met in a joint work session at the Rec Center Wednesday afternoon to begin talks about building a new Guntersville High School.
The Board has indicated it would like for the city to pay for a new high school, estimated to cost $50 million. The Board also said it has $12 million in other facility needs at other schools in the system.
One number jumped out during the work session. School officials said it would cost $3.8 million a year to service the debt on a $62 million loan. It would take an additional 22 mills of property tax – half as much again as property owners in Guntersville now pay – to generate that revenue.
The Council was seated on one side of tables arranged in a U-shape and the School Board the other, with Mayor Leigh Dollar and Superintendent Brett Stanton at the head of the U.
“This is not an us vs. them situation,” Mayor Leigh Dollar said to open the session. “Everyone at this table wants what is best for Guntersville. What can we do together?”
School Board chairman Trey Giles said he shared that sentiment.
Dollar explained that the city does support the schools. She said the city’s budget is about $20 million a year, with $5.5 million of that going to the city school system.
“20 to 22 percent of our budget every year goes to the schools,” she said.
There’s a 9-mill property tax for schools in Guntersville, dating back to 1957 when it was first put on to build the old Carlisle Park School.
“It was also used to build the elementary school and part of Cherokee School,” Dollar said.
The city also pays the bond payments on the new Guntersville Middle School, about $700,000 each year. That indebtedness does not pay off until 2029.
The city also pays for 2 school resource officers, crossing guards at each school and a portion of the city alcohol tax goes to the school system.
Mayor Dollar said the city agreed to fund construction of the middle school in 2004 for $8.8 million. But the cost went higher than that and the school system came back to the city for another $1.6 million.
During the economic downturn of 2008, the payment was almost more than the city could bear. Dollar and city clerk Betty Jones said it really strapped the city.
The bond was refinanced in 2012 and the city added an additional 1-cent sales tax about that time. When the city refinanced, it also borrowed some additional money for some city projects, such as the downtown sidewalk renovation.
“It is a $1.1 million payment per year,” Dollar said. “About 60 percent of that is for the school and about 40 percent is the city’s.”
Dollar explained how the city has done a facilities assessment and it needs to do some projects of its own.
“The Rec Center that we are in is an example,” she said. “It’s a nice building, but it needs some upgrading.”
Councilman Randy Whitaker said a sales tax is probably not the best way to pay for a school.
“We are doing good right now, but we know there will be bumps in the economy and corrections in the markets,” he said. “We can have a Black Monday or another 2008.”
Councilman Dink Myers said when the Council agreed to pay for Guntersville Middle School, the cost was going to be $4-1/2 million.
“It was over $10 million by the time it was finished,” he said.
“Wasn’t there a delay of 18 months in there between when the decision was made to build a school and construction actually started?” Giles asked.
City attorney Dan Warnes said that was correct. There was a controversy at the time over whether the school could be built on what was then a soccer field. The school system ultimately prevailed in court on that point.
Board member Laura Roberts said that should not be an issue with the high school. The tentative plan, according to Stanton, is to build a U-shaped school in the GHS parking lot. The existing school would then be torn down and made into a new parking lot.
But he acknowledged later in the meeting that it would likely take 5 years to get the school designed, approved by the Alabama Building Commission and built.
“That’s if we had a funding mechanism in place today,” he said. “Some say we could do it in 4, but 5 years is more realistic.”
Whitaker said the current Guntersville High building had problems almost from the beginning. He was in one of the first classes to go through the school.
“We have to remember when we are building public buildings, we need them to last 50-60-70 years,” he said.
Stanton said he understood about having to make tough choices.
“When I came on board, we did not have the $1.4 million one-month operating balance required by the state,” he said. “We had to make some tough choices. Now we have a 2-month operating balance and we hope to build on that.”
Board members explained that the ABM energy savings project they just started promised a guaranteed return of $300,000 a year. Even more importantly, the $6.2 million project allowed the Board to address some critical facility needs that they otherwise might have had a hard time funding. The project is being paid back over 15 years.
“The Board studied it for a long time,” Giles said. “Initially, the project was more than $10 million and we cut back on the scope of the work.”
Stanton said the school system has $4 million worth of HVAC work alone that needs to be done.
There was a bit of discussion about renovating the existing school. Stanton said it would cost so much to get it up to today’s codes that it would be more economical to build new.
There was also talk about a mix of funding, with both property taxes and sales tax as part of the solution.
“50 years from now, we want people to look back and realize we did the right thing for our community,” Dollar said.
The current high school is roughly 160,000 square feet, school officials said. The school on the drawing board would be roughly that size too. The middle school, with one less grade, is 76,458 square feet.
School Board member David Mitchell said it had been a productive work session. Each side has submitted a series of questions to the other.
Dollar said they will answer one another’s questions and more work sessions will likely follow.