In an hour+ special meeting focusing on education in Lakeland, City staff and officials said Lakeland can afford the additional debt for a high school to be built at LMPS (Lakeland Middle Preparatory School) by a projected open date of 2020.
Two Lakeland residents, however, questioned that opinion and asked where is the need for a high school and why hasn’t Lakeland talked to the Arlington Community School System about the plans.
Dr. Ted Horrell, superintendent for the Lakeland School System (LSS), provided details of capital considerations for LSS through a series of slides. Included were conditions and capacity of Lakeland Elementary School (LES), eventual expansion of LMPS to Lakeland Prep (high school) and an additional campus for anticipated growth in grades K-5.
He is asking the Lakeland School Board (LSB) to consider a $3 million capital request for eight classrooms at LES and an addition to the cafeteria and suggesting 20-acres be purchased now for an additional elementary or intermediate campus in five or ten years.
At the request of the BOC, Dr. Horrell provided plans and costs to build a high school wing to LMPS and possibly open in 2020. This was presented to the BOC Nov. 9.
Vice Mayor Josh Roman asked how Dr. Horrell monitors the progress of the two schools in the System and keeps them on track.
“We’ve had excellent results at the elementary school,” said Dr. Horrell. “Our approach is to make sure our folks have access to tools and data to make the right decisions. We determine where we were successful, where we were not successful. We try to close the gap.”
He said there are excellent interventionists and psychologists on staff. And with such previous good results, the elementary school has set the bar high for the middle school.
Kevin Floyd, chair of the LSB, said there is a called meeting at 4 p.m. Monday (11.20.17) to discuss the schools’ capital plan. From his perspective, he said there has not been a lot of conversation about a land purchase and he would rank the elementary expansion and high school addition ahead of the land acquisition.
Commissioner Matt Wright likened Lakeland to Signal Mountain, TN whose school system, comparable to Lakeland, is ranked no. 28 in the state by Niche.com compared to the Arlington System ranked at no. 33. Greatschools.com rated Arlington an 8 out of 10 and Signal Mountain 9 of 10.
“From an economic standpoint, home sales in Lakeland are up and something drove that spike in home sales. Home values are up, taxes went down,” he said. “I will back the capital plan if the School Board approves it Monday night,” he added.
Jessica Millspaugh, City finance director and recorder, talked to the City’s financial advisors for preliminary information about funding the high school wing. Basically, she said, the current CON (Capital Outlay Notes) would be combined with the new money for one bond issuance to save costs.
The addition to LMPS (the high school wing) is anticipated to cost $36.5 million minus $3.5 million saved from the LMPS construction which was completed this summer. With those numbers, the new debt would be combined with the $17.2 million balance on the original CON money for a 30 or 35-year loan.
She said the 55-cent property tax provides $1.9 million annually for the current loan. So, she said, the City would be subsidizing $1 million to $1.3 million. Asked by Vice Mayor Roman what might be the interest rate, she said it would be a little higher for the 35 year term, but likely 4.25 to 4.75 percent.
Specifically, Mrs. Millspaugh listed the figures as:
Current debt service payment: $2.22M
Estimated debt service for new issuance: $2.93 – 3.24M
Increase in annual debt service for HS: $0.71 – 1.02M
Jim Atkinson, city manager, spoke of areas where the City might find funding for the additional monies. He said the magic number is $710,000 to $1.2 million increased debt service. “Do we have it?” he asked. “Yes,” he answered.
Three budgeting areas that will be looked at for decreasing annual expenditures could be, among others:
1. A portion of street paving
2. Paying off existing variable rate debt
3. Future capital project
Assumptions on the new debt include no tax increase, said Mr. Atkinson and limited impact on City services. “We want to remain proactive and respond to citizens’ needs.
Mayor Wyatt Bunker commented, “That’s exciting to hear. It’s pretty big news we could do that.”
City Attorney Chris Patterson talked about the GOP tax plan expected to be approved if not by the end of 2017, by early 2018. He said it would prohibit refinancing of tax exempt municipal debt after Dec. 31, 2017. “The broad consensus in both the House and the Senate is there is not a lot of desire to remove that.”
He said there is a flurry nationwide of counsel advising clients to refinance municipal debt. “There is not time to waste if you want to do this process.” He suggested the City schedule another special meeting on the heels of next week’s LSB special meeting to follow with the next steps. That BOC meeting will be at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 27, considering the Thanksgiving holiday next week.
Mayor Bunker said the best thing would be for Mr. Patterson to get with City staff and create a timeline of what is to be done and when. “We have a razor thin opportunity to get all the players involved,” he said.
Mr. Patterson said it is premature until the School Board approves the capital plan. Mayor Bunker suggested the assumption they approve the plan. “If it passes, then we will know the next steps.”
The first of two Lakeland residents to speak was Stephanie Lefler who asked about the educational need to build a high school versus a want.
The Vice Mayor said, “We did this debate four years ago. This is what’s in the best interest of the future of Lakeland. Let’s not rehash the whole need, us versus Arlington thing. Let’s focus on does this body believe it’s the best move forward for the future of our City.”
Mayor Bunker cited the economic perspective which says good schools bring families, families buy houses and businesses are attracted to thriving communities and want to build there. “And sales tax makes the economic growth possible,” he said.
The second resident was Valerie Speakman, who introduced herself as being a Lakeland resident, lawyer and counsel for Arlington Community School (ACS).
She said she is troubled that Lakeland has an agreement with ACS and owes them the courtesy of talking to them, “Before you rush this thing through. This is terrible form. This body represents me. You are operating in such bad faith.” She said Lakeland could care less what happens to the students in Arlington.
Mayor Bunker replied, “We don’t care less about children in Arlington and more for the Lakeland students. I’ve spoken to Tammy (Mason, ACS superintendent). I know there is a lot of apprehension. But I care about that community a lot. But from a Lakeland perspective, if you were in our shoes, you would be pushing for local control. Arlington has four school buildings. Lakeland paid a lot of money for those buildings with rural school bonds and other County dollars. And we’ve paid half of your operating expenses.
“We are in a time crunch here. We’ve been good partners. You created a contract and we are not violating the contract. We are bound to do what our constituents expect us to do.”
Mrs. Speakman replied, “I am you,” referring to her status as a Lakeland resident and taxpayer. She added that Lakeland should have a collaborative meeting with the partners. “It’s rude not to have a meeting with them.,” she said.
Mayor Bunker responded by noting there are examples out there of Arlington and Lakeland needing an agreement and not being able to come to a consensus. “But I won’t air this in public,” he said. He did note, however, that Lakeland was bashed on social media and on local television by Arlington. So he was surprised to get a lecture on how Lakeland is treating Arlington.
Vice Mayor Roman summed up the evening by saying, “Based on our current options, we can afford the new bond, not impact City services and no tax increase.”
As the meeting ended, Commissioner Clark Plunk said, “It feels like 2014. If we had followed through then, we’d have a high school today and not be discussing this.”
In April 2015, voters went to the polls in a special election and defeated a $50 million bond issue which would have constructed a middle school and high school on the current LMPS campus. The bond was to be funded with a 55-cent property tax which was not removed despite the vote against the bond issue.
… Photos by Jim Willis, Lakeland Currents