Three construction projects were put on hold last week after a lengthy discussion during a Mobile County Public Schools board meeting, where Superintendent Martha Peek said the school system did not have enough funds to secure construction bonds for renovations at Mae Eanes Middle School, auditorium construction at John. L. LeFlore Magnet High School and a multipurpose project at Indian Springs Elementary School.

While Peek told the school board “we can’t guarantee we’d have funds to carry out these projects,” she emphasized the recommendation was to simply delay rather than to completely cancel the construction projects.

The school board ultimately voted 4-1 to delay the construction at all three schools, with District 4 Commissioner Robert Battles, who represents two of the schools in question, voting against the measure.

“He voted no, and that’s understandable,” Peek said. “Those are his projects, and he’s been in there working very hard on them, and that’s why I kept stressing delayed. There were just cost overruns in earlier projects that were bid out, and when you hit a couple that were over $2 million over then that’s why we wanted to delay it, so we wouldn’t impact contracts and things we can’t sign unless we have this money secured.”

Peek noted “unexpected expenses” on earlier constructions costs, giving examples such as land issues with construction of the new Citronelle High School and other issues at Chastang Middle School.

These expenses exceeded expected budgets by more than $2 million per project, she said.
The initial recommendation by the superintendent only asked the board to delay the projects at Mae Eanes Middle School and John L. LeFlore High School, the last bid dates on the 2012 bond projects schedule, until funds became available to complete construction; however, after open disagreement from Battles, an amended motion added Indian Springs Elementary School.

“It really concerns me because my students and my community are just as important as anybody else,” Battles said, asking the board to be unbiased when distributing funds to various schools in need of construction projects. “ … Just fairness, that’s all,” he asked. “No preferential treatment.”

Both Mae Eanes Middle School and John L. LeFlore High school are represented by Battles while Indian Springs Middle School is represented by District 3 Commissioner Dr. Reginald Crenshaw, who agreed with adding Indian Springs Middle School to the list of delayed construction projects.  

“Surely when the 2015-16 budget is prepared, those projects (will) be given the utmost consideration, and I’ll be looking forward to having those recommendations hopefully come forward,” Crenshaw said, emphasizing his representation of Indian Springs Middle School.

Battles, who said $2.8 million received from expected property sales would leave a $2.4 million gap in needed funds for the construction projects, asked why those extra funds could not be used toward the projects, and he went on to request a meeting be scheduled with the school system’s policy committee, headed by District 5 Commissioner Don Stringfellow.

“When I asked you about what happened to property that sold in the school district, you said that they put it back into the construction fund and they used it for the most need, well I consider this to be the most need,” Battles told Peek during the meeting. “I’m sure we could find that (money) somewhere.”

Peek said funds from finalized property sales would come before the board for consideration.

“You don’t want to eliminate any projects, but you have to have those funds secure to do it,” she said. “ … We do want to be fair … we want to ensure we get everything we can out of that 2012 bond project.”

Tommy Sheffield, executive director of operations, said several properties — like Augusta Evans and the former Old Shell Road School — are still in the plan agreement process, which can last around 180 days.

The process, which began in December, could be near closing around mid-summer, and it is “not unusual” for the process to extend this amount of time, Sheffield said.

“Like Mr. Battles brought up, there is the opportunity that some property will sell and then that, of course, will go into that budget,” Peek told Lagniappe after the meeting. “It’s just that this time, the budget is so tight, we don’t have any extra funds for any construction funds.”

MCPSS Chief Financial Officer Dinish Simpson said the school system had $63 million in both state and local capital funds for the 2015 fiscal year, all of which have been completely budgeted out with $14 million being dispersed for construction projects.

According to Simpson, the $14 million in construction costs will not be on the budget next year, and there will be an opportunity for the school system to rebudget in the 2016 fiscal year for the delayed projects.

“We won’t repeat these same expenditures during this (time) next year,” Peek said.

In addition to the extra $14 million dollars that will not be spent on construction projects next year, Simpson said the school system will receive new capital funds in October; however, the exact amount has not been confirmed at this time.

“I feel confident that when the capital funds come in in October that the funds will be available at that time, and I don’t think we’ll see a long delay in the projects being completed,” Peek said.

In other business, the school board approved a new tobacco use policy, which now prohibits the use of electronic type cigarettes in addition to tobacco products on school grounds and at school activities. Students and employees in violation of the new policy will be subject to disciplinary action in accordance with existing procedures, which call for the possibility of suspension or termination. Additionally, any visitors in violation of the policy will be asked to leave the premises.

Two public hearings on the issue were held in February, and the new policy is now in effect.