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Safety upgrades would delay other CMS projects

CMS officials to review proposal to fence schools and mobile classrooms

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  • Safety trade-offs

    CMS officials say these projects promised in the 2007 bond campaign could be delayed if commissioners approve spending $33.7 million for safety upgrades next year. The school board approved the request, but members were not told it would delay other projects.

    • Two new schools, to relieve crowding at Hickory Grove and Highland Creek elementary schools.

    • New stadiums at West Mecklenburg and Olympic high schools.

    • Stadium improvements at Garinger High.

    • Renovations at Hawthorne school.

    • HVAC improvements at a number of schools.



Spending almost $34 million on school safety upgrades will force Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to delay other projects voters were promised during the 2007 school bond campaign, Mecklenburg County’s finance director said Wednesday.

Tuesday night, CMS officials told the school board the new spending for fences, cameras and other security improvements would not displace other projects on the priority list, which have already been delayed by the recession. The board approved the $33.7 million plan 7-0, with two members absent.

Associate Superintendent Guy Chamberlain, who oversees buildings and construction, said he learned about the delays Wednesday, when the Observer asked Mecklenburg County Finance Director Dena Diorio to elaborate on comments she made at a Tuesday commissioners’ meeting.

Diorio said money spent on security upgrades will require that some other CMS projects be delayed until 2015. Projects that face potential delays include two new elementary schools and stadium improvements at three high schools.

County manager Harry Jones, superintendent Heath Morrison and key staffers have scheduled a Friday meeting to follow up on the plan for safety improvements, CMS spokeswoman Kathryn Block said Wednesday.

“We recognize there’s been some breakdown in communication,” she said. “It’s important that we get everybody back together and working on the same page.”

Also Wednesday, Chamberlain said he plans to hire a campus security consultant to review the proposal to put 8-foot chain-link fences around school campuses and mobile classrooms, which would cost an estimated $13 million. He said he wants to explore concerns county commissioners raised Tuesday, such as how much the fences will add to the cost of moving mobile classrooms and whether those fences, designed to keep intruders out, could endanger students and staff trying to flee if an armed assailant got in.

“Those points are valid,” Chamberlain said. “We’re not going to willy-nilly start erecting fences all over our campuses.”

Day-to-day safety

At separate meetings with county commissioners and the school board Tuesday, CMS chief operating officer Millard House made it clear that the $33.7 million plan he was presenting was a districtwide estimate, with school-by-school details still to be worked out. CMS plans to bring a more detailed plan to county commissioners for a vote in March.

At both meetings, the emphasis was on deterring attacks like the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. CMS officials began surveying safety needs and talking with county leaders about how to pay for them after the December tragedy.

But as House and Morrison have acknowledged, it’s impossible to create a system that is guaranteed to deter an armed attacker. Sandy Hook had many of the elements that CMS hopes to add.

The proposed upgrades, which include video cameras and buzz-in entry systems, are more likely to pay off with the kind of situations schools encounter on a regular basis, from break-ins and vandalism to fights and unruly visitors. Chamberlain said some schools are targeted by thieves who break into mobile classrooms and steal computers or strip copper wiring from air-conditioner chillers, which cost $75,000 to replace.

“It’s not just that once-in-a-lifetime crazy person who’s going to do something bad,” Chamberlain said.

Finding the money

For taxpayers, the biggest question may be where the $34 million comes from.

CMS and county officials agree the safety upgrades can be covered by the $517 million in school bonds the voters approved in 2007. But beyond that, some details are in flux.

A bond vote is essentially a line of credit authorized by voters and taxpayers. And as most families know, getting a line of credit isn’t the same as being able to pay off the loan.

CMS presented a list of school projects, including new construction and renovation, that would be covered by the $517 million. Because CMS doesn’t have taxing authority, the county must issue the bonds and repay the debt.

CMS had just started on its project list when the recession hit. At that point, county commissioners dramatically scaled back borrowing to control costs, which put many of the CMS projects on hold.

Now the county is borrowing again.

For the coming year, the county plans to borrow about $139.3 million, including CMS and parks projects, Diorio said. She said $71.9 million has already been committed to projects with priority rankings, and adding the new CMS safety projects would leave just under $34 million for all remaining county projects. CMS has seven projects from the 2007 bond list that haven’t yet been ranked, with a total cost of $77.9 million.

“So CMS needs to be aware that by funding the security project other unranked projects will be deferred one year,” Diorio said in an email Wednesday.

More questions

Because the county assigns priority rankings, Chamberlain said Wednesday he doesn’t know which of the seven CMS projects would be postponed. He said he did not realize Tuesday night that the county’s agreement to borrow for the safety upgrades, which were not part of the bond proposal, would delay other CMS projects.

At both meetings Tuesday, House told elected officials that the safety upgrades would be covered by $40 million in savings from other 2007 bond projects. School board member Tom Tate asked for specifics on the savings, and House said they’d be provided.

Wednesday, Chamberlain said that figure is outdated and irrelevant. CMS had saved $40 million when district officials began the safety study, but has since spent about $16 million to expand other bond projects, he said. The remaining total isn’t significant, he said, because “it’s not going to come out of savings.”

The size of the CMS safety request could change after the consultant’s study and further staff work, Chamberlain said, though he doesn’t expect a dramatic shift.

The need to delay other project complicates the safety push, Chamberlain said, but “I think the public would want us to focus in on security.”

Board Chairman Mary McCray, reached at a basketball game Wednesday evening, said she was not aware that the situation had changed. “We were under the impression that no other projects would be affected,” she said. She said she couldn’t comment on implications until she learns more.

Helms: 704-358-5033
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