Fayette ESPLOST leader blows whistle on Board of Education for Booth deception

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Biggest question: What about the needs of all the other schools? — 

A man of principle and the leader of the last three successful school tax referenda is calling a foul on the Fayette County Board of Education.

Neil Sullivan, who co-chaired all the modern ESPLOST drives, says in his letter to the editor today that an expensive new Booth Middle School not only is not needed, the very act of spending more than $40 million in local money to replace the existing Booth with a new school is deceptive and was never envisioned in the 2017 list of projects to be financed with the extra penny sales tax.

“While some suggest there is urgency needed for this decision, nothing has changed since before the ESPLOST election either in the structure of the building, student population, or excellent educational results,” Sullivan writes. “The only measurable change is in the amount of money the FCBOE has to spend, thanks to the ESPLOST.”

Here’s my less diplomatic way of stating the same set of facts: The school system has a pot load of money and they are itching to spend it on a nice-to-have rather than an emergency and necessary requirement.

Here’s what a man who has three times led the drive to provide needed funds for the Fayette School System says:

“… when the FCBOE came to the public to request ‘ESPLOST III,’ they did not ask for more than $40 million for a new middle school. Instead they asked for $10 million to renovate the gym and cafeteria at Booth as part of an approximate $70 million pool for repairs and improvements to all of our schools,” Sullivan writes.

“… the decision should be between the $40 million+ for the new building and the original $10 million budget proposed. Not between a new school and an inflated and improbable transformation,” Sullivan writes.

“Even with a 50-percent addition for cost over-runs, the budget for the renovation would be $15 million or $25 million less than the current ‘transformative’ proposal,” Sullivan writes.

He criticizes the board for changing the rules of the game. After telling voters one thing two years ago, the BoE now decides to do something the voters never asked for nor approved. Here’s Sullivan’s nice way of putting the deception:

“Some opposed to the ESPLOST [were] concerned about the possibility of the BOE telling the voters what they need to hear to get access to the funds and then changing course. While there isn’t a violation in any law, the current course of events does not prove these critics wrong.”

Sullivan asks an important question that taxpayers and parents of children at all other Fayette schools should consider. “At the $10 million discussed, Booth would have been approximately 13 percent of the renovations budget. Now we are talking about more than 50 percent of the current renovations budget, and nearly 25 percent of the total expected ESPLOST collections. What projects at which schools will be cancelled to pay for this school?” Sullivan asks with precision.

Here’s my translation: BoE, you got this ESPLOST passed by telling voters you were going to spread the money around for needs at multiple schools. Now you are going to grab half of it for something you never asked for and something the voters never gave permission for. So what about all those needs at all the other schools? Will passing the hat at PTO meetings fill that gap?

Sullivan says nothing has changed at Booth in two years since the ESPLOST vote to warrant this massive tax grab.

My take is this: Whoever on the BoE votes for this tax grab is guilty of bad faith non-public scheming and false dealing with the voters of this county, and should not be trusted with the public’s money after this vote.

The last point made by Sullivan is a gentle warning: “None of the three ESPLOSTs authorized by our community have passed with wide margins. In fact, the first two barely passed. The September 26, 2017 board deck speaks to the $74 million renovations budget and possible classroom additions to Booth.

Here’s my less gentle prediction about a BoE vote to build an unneeded school on the very outskirts of the attendance zone: “You better enjoy that ESPLOST money while you have it, because you’ll never get another one approved by the voters that you will have treated like a gullible mark in a con game.”

[Cal Beverly is publisher of TheCitizen.com, online since 1996.]

12 COMMENTS

  1. To those of you suggesting spending the money on teacher pay; If you don’t like the pay, leave and go find another occupation or move to another district that pays better. Nobody is forcing anyone to be a teacher here. As far as the $10 million to renovate Booth, that number is unrealistic to say the least. The school needs a complete overhaul. Upgrades to HVAC, plumbing, lighting, communication systems (Intercom, fire alarm, A/V and networking) and a new backup generator will eat that $10 million quick. The building will still need some structural improvements, paint, flooring and many other cosmetic items. Possibly a new roof as well. I would rather see my tax dollars spent on a new facility that will serve the students and teachers well for many years to come. What I would like to know is what board member urinated in Cal Beverlys Cheerios, he always seems to have an axe to grind with them. How about looking into some of the real issues plaguing the county. If you need a list I will be more than happy to provide one.

  2. I think everyone is for accountability here. The problem is, no one wants to talk about a reasonable alternative to a decrepit school. It doesn’t sound like $10 million in renovations to the existing facility will solve the problem. We are putting a band aid on a festering wound, and the operations and maintenance costs of an ageing facility will continue to grow. A few million here, a few more there will add up, and that is just to keep the doors open.

    So what is the alternative for a stable student population and a facility approaching the end of its useful life?

    • JDPower, I agree that we all would like accountability.

      The conversation for reasonable alternatives should continue, but not at the break-neck speed it seems to be at regarding the new site and facility. I’ll also agree that $10 million will not solve every single issue, but the hit of $46 million will be immediately felt city and county wide. Call me crazy, but an initial $10 million and several million “here and there” spread over the course of years sounds better.

      Another thing I keep in mind is this statement “guaranteed maximum price of $46 million”. How many governments from the municipal to the federal level have we heard this kind of statement from? What happens should the construction blow past $46 million? Who pays then?

  3. You all seem surprised that an elected official uses a work-around to get what he/she/they want but could not get approved by the voters. It is not on the same scale as how the Democrats and sometimes the Republicans in Congress have used the Supreme Court to circumvent the voters, but it is the came concept. This is how we got Roe v. Wade and Bush v. Gore. There are many other examples – some even local if your memory is good.

    I said earlier when this was first announced as a choice between the 2 options that somebody was presented some really inflated Booth renovation numbers to make it look like a close call financially. Maybe they should through this little $10million oversight into the mix and start over. If nothing else go to the meeting Wednesday and get some conversation going.

    • I’m surprised how fast this proposal is proceeding. Until the September 9 Guaranteed Maximum Price consideration for Booth, I saw nothing of this. Moving Booth is not economically feasible unless the FCBOE Members’ best interest is being served and there is little documentation supporting the students are the best interest. Is it more of a question of the FCBOE’s integrity when the FCBOE’s July 31, 2019 ESPLOST III’s allocation balance was a little more than $47 million. Who is driving the FCBOE’s train, the budgeteers who are asking how to spend the (seemingly surplus) money or someone else? I give the FCBOE an “F” in ESPLOST III program management. Now, if the FCBOE can pony up a real strategic vision, we may not have an issue.

  4. Thank you Cal (and all) at The Citizen as well those who contribute for always keeping us informed. I’ve been away from my hometown of Peachtree City since graduating in 2006, but often read the news and stay updated on this site. This is unreal and completely ridiculous of the BoE. I feel that there are a large number of additional reasons that a new Booth Middle School is unnecessary, but the major issue is here is INTEGRITY. Should the BoE approve this, many are watching and keeping note. I envision moving back one day as my small children become elementary age, but with shady BoE moves like this…has me thinking otherwise!

  5. 418Goza, Cat, As I understand it ESPLOST money can not be used to pay staff. I’ve stated many times that the FCBOE spends with reckless abandon because they firmly believe that the citizens will approve any SPLOST for education. So far they have been correct.

  6. One idea is to pay staff what the state took away a few years back and the school system never fixed it. The other is, I place a lot of the blame on the Superintendent. I think a lot of the board are just yes men and there aren’t a lot of discussions about decisions. Whatever he wants, he gets. Buying land and building a new school is just outrageous when you consider the costs as opposed to renovations. Thank goodness for Mr Sullivan and his willingness to speak out.