Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will scale back its $33.7 million school safety plan to ensure that two new elementary schools and other 2007 bond projects are not delayed, Superintendent Heath Morrison said Friday.
The first thing to go will be $13 million for building 8-foot chain-link fences, Morrison said. Some new fencing could be part of future bond plans.
On Tuesday, the school board unanimously approved the plan, which includes fences, cameras and buzz-in entry systems, after CMS staff repeatedly assured them that it would not affect other projects promised when voters approved $517 million in school bonds.
Morrison said CMS leaders believed that was true, even after Mecklenburg County Finance Director Dena Diorio stood up at a county commissioners meeting earlier Tuesday to correct CMS Chief Operating Officer Millard House on that statement. He said House was busy taking notes and did not grasp what Diorio had said.
The delays came to light after the Observer asked Diorio to elaborate. She made it clear to CMS that adding the safety spending would put seven CMS bond projects at risk of being postponed for a year.
One lesson, Morrison said, is that House erred by going into the county meeting alone. From now on, he said, there will always be at least one other staffer to take notes. After a Friday meeting between Morrison, County Manager Harry Jones and other staff, the two bodies agreed that CMS could scale back the safety plan to protect the promised bond projects.
“We made commitments and we are going to honor those commitments,” Morrison said.
The school board will vote on a revised safety plan March 12.
This week brought a stumbling start for Morrison and his team as they prepare to launch a new round of construction projects, which will require the support of county officials and voters. Morrison said he thinks people will understand that the safety plan was solid and that honest mistakes were quickly corrected.
“I hope the issue isn’t a credibility gap,” he said.
But at least one county commissioner was skeptical.
“I find it impossible to believe that CMS didn’t know this would impact their current priority list,” county commissioner Karen Bentley said Thursday. “Give me a break! This is what makes it difficult for our two boards to work together effectively.”
Factors affecting bonds
CMS and county leaders have been discussing safety improvements since shortly after December’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.
The money, they agreed, would come from the 2007 bonds.
During that campaign, CMS presented a list of new schools and renovations the money would pay for. Because CMS has no taxing authority, the county has the final say on issuing the bonds and giving CMS the money.
The recession dramatically slowed the county’s borrowing. Some costs came down, and CMS closed two schools that were scheduled for renovation in the 2007 proposal.
Associate Superintendent Guy Chamberlain said CMS had asked whether any savings could be applied to additional projects, and county officials said no. But they later agreed to make an exception for safety upgrades.
Morrison and House both started work in CMS last summer. Morrison said they apparently did not fully understand the county’s process and borrowing limits, wrongly assuming that the county would borrow enough to do the safety upgrades and all bond projects in the coming year.
On Tuesday, House outlined the $33.7 million safety plan at two meetings – first for county commissioners, then for the school board.
At the commissioners meeting, Bentley asked whether the safety upgrades would displace other bond projects. House said no.
Diorio rose from her seat in the audience to correct him.
Neither Morrison nor Chamberlain, who has worked with bond projects for years, attended that meeting.
Later that evening, House made the same presentation to the school board.
Board member Tom Tate raised questions, including whether CMS had asked the Bond Oversight Committee to weigh in. The panel of volunteers was created to make sure CMS bonds are spent according to the voter-approved plan.
House said no.
“I need to hear from them before I can understand that this is a good thing to do ... and that we’re being faithful to the public that approved the money,” Tate said.
Chamberlain told Tate he’d had a phone conversation with the committee chair and assured him the safety upgrades wouldn’t affect other projects. Later, board member Eric Davis asked for assurances.
“So just to be sure that I’m clear,” Davis said, “the previous commitments that the board has made to the public about the 2007 bond will be honored?”
“Yes, sir,” Chamberlain said.
After the board’s unanimous endorsement, an Observer reporter asked Chamberlain about Diorio’s earlier comment. He said he was not aware of it and that it could change the situation.
On Wednesday morning, Diorio responded to an Observer email and explained the consequences of the safety plan. “CMS needs to be aware that by funding the security project other unranked projects will be deferred one year,” she said.
Morrison said he had lunch with commissioners’ Chairman Pat Cotham on Wednesday and heard the same thing. “That’s when we knew that there was a disconnect between what our assumptions were and what their assumptions were.”
School board members were taken aback when they learned they’d approved a plan that would delay bond projects. Tate, whose district includes Hickory Grove Elementary, said he wouldn’t have moved so fast if he realized the safety upgrades would stall a school to relieve crowding.
Rhonda Lennon, whose district includes Highland Creek Elementary, was home recovering from hip surgery but sent a letter of support for the safety spending. She said Thursday that support was based on staff assurances that other projects would not be affected. “I cannot support any measures that delay the relief for HCES,” she said. “That is a bigger safety concern to me than some of the planned measures.”