CHATSWORTH — Murray County Board of Education members are considering adding a renovation of the early learning center to the already-planned remodeling of Murray County High School.
Major renovations of the venerable high school will be paid for mostly by Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax funds from an ESPLOST approved by voters in March that will start next August, said Superintendent Steve Loughridge.
However, school system officials learned Thursday the school system will have access to $4.8 million in federal American Rescue Plan of 2021 funds it had previously earmarked for technology because other funding — like a Connectivity Grant — became available to cover much of those technology needs.
"We have $4.8 million that got freed up today," and this is "your one shot to help" the early learning center, said Mike Pritchett, Murray County Schools' director of facilities and transportation. "That $4.8 million expires in September 2024," and because the early learning center doesn't house students in kindergarten-12th grade, it's ineligible for capital outlay money from the state.
"Most of our (next) ESPLOST will go to Murray County High School, (so) there's no other funding source" for the early learning center, Loughridge said. Roughly 300 prekindergarten students and 150 Head Start children currently use the early learning center, and moving those children to elementary schools isn't a viable option due to a lack of space, as well as the fact it would mean less in capital outlay funds for those buildings.
To move students from the early learning center to elementary schools "would be a lose-lose," said Chris Crow, Murray County Schools' maintenance supervisor.
"There's not enough room," Loughridge said. "The end result would be trailers at Gladden Middle School."
Combining the Murray County High School renovations with the early learning center would "lesson our construction fee and save us money," Pritchett said. Work on the early learning center would include "as much as we could do with the money we have to spend on it," from "redoing the electrical system because it's out of date" to flooring, ceiling, windows, lighting and heating, ventilation and air conditioning.
The school board members won't vote on this matter until later in the month or even November, but "we're not costing ourself any time," Loughridge said. "It's not delaying anything," because plans for the high school renovations have yet to be finalized.
Greg Shoemaker, chairman of the school board, said he was leaning toward including "both" the early learning center and the high school in advertising for bids.
"I like it," as the school system would "save money," said Conrad Puryear, who represents District 5 on the school board. "I wouldn't want to take (funds) away from education, but I think we can do both."
Murray County Schools is likely to have nearly $30 million for that potential project — which would include renovations at the high school, buying school buses and "hopefully" the early learning center remodeling — including the $4.8 million, $20 million from bond sales, $2-$3 million on a premium from that bond sale and $1.9 million in capital outlay funds for the high school, said Kathy Smith, the school system's director of finance. The school system received $13 million from the American Rescue Plan of 2021, and "we're buying out of (that) going forward," such as a purchase order she discussed Thursday of $98,500 to outfit all Murray County Schools buses that don't already have them with cameras.
Those cameras can not only provide better perspective of action on the bus, but can be used for footage of any wrecks and to catch those who blow past bus stop signs, Pritchett said. Violators "run our stop signs all the time."
However, with these cameras, "you're going to get caught," Smith said. "Don't pass a stopped school bus."
The school system has spent its $1.6 million from the initial federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act — mostly on Chromebooks — and some of the $6 million it received from the second CARES Act is "still being used at school levels," Smith said. "They are doing some great things with the money," including purchasing supplies and software.
She's also allotted school-level funds from the American Rescue Plan for the next two years, she said. Unlike with the CARES Acts, funds from the American Rescue Plan can be used on facility improvements, such as the early learning center, and those will "last many years down the road."
Murray County Schools completed fiscal year 2021, which concluded June 30, with a $378,000 surplus in the general fund, so "this was a really good year for Murray County Schools," especially considering "we expected to have a $7.3 million loss," she said. The general fund balance at the start of fiscal year 2022 was $13.5 million, "instead of $5.9 million" as anticipated during the budgeting process, which "ought to make us all smile."
The school system's better-than-projected financial picture has another benefit, Loughridge said.
"Next spring, when we go to sell bonds, we'll get a better interest rate."