In terms of perception, at least some of the members on the Morehouse Parish School Board remain leery that the April tax millage election rejected by voters that would have generated funds for individual school needs has its invisible fingerprints on the follow-up millage election Dec. 8.
In terms of perception, at least some of the members on the Morehouse Parish School Board remain leery that the April tax millage election rejected by voters that would have generated funds for individual school needs has its invisible fingerprints on the follow-up millage election Dec. 8. When that election failed many pointed – fairly or not, and correctly or not – to the $1 million item on it to replace the natural grass football field at Bastrop High with artificial turf. Some advocates like the Save Our Schools committee backed the proposal, while others questioned either the necessity of the turf or if there would indeed be a savings over the long run with turf versus costly grass maintenance. School board president Ron Vollmar said the turf question is a “dead issue.” “I don't know how the votes will go on this election, but I feel certain that the turf will not come up again before this board. I'm sure it won't, it doesn't have the votes,” he said. He said that while the board felt it was “hand strung” by SOS's conditional backing of the spring election so long as it included turf, that dynamic is not present this time. Voter turnout is anticipated to be low, and the Dec. 8 ballot would only need 50 percent, plus one, of the number of voters who show up for it to pass, which would generate about $2.6 million. The law says that recipients of the bond money must apply the spending of it exactly as it is written on the ballot. And on December's ballot the language is much more general than specific, stating money would be used toward “purchasing, erecting and/or improving school buildings and other school related facilities.” In the spring the board was generally adamant that the ballot include an itemized list showing how the sum would be spent on schools' “wish list” – a list reportedly prepared by each school's administrators and signed off on by each principal. Seven months later, however, and the board's desire to present the voters again with an itemized list – one was formed in September without turf – has been undercut with a growing number of new expensive repairs, including replacing old, broken down chillers at Bastrop High and new roofs at some schools. Board member Jeff Churchwell knows there's doubt for voters – and a quagmire for the board. “If you ask for a blank check, which we've done, then the voters have no assurance that money is not going to go to turf” even if we pledge it won't, he said. But on the other hand, Churchwell notes that the budget only has emergency funds totaling about $20,000. “Do we spend the money on old problems at schools or do we address new ones while the current ones only continue to get worse?” he asked. “I wish we could be more flexible,” he continued. “But it's difficult. We can't adopt a list because it's a moving document.” The uncertainty contrasts with money the district needs to get to put in new computer labs with computers at every school. In two years, the state has an unfunded mandate that all public school districts administer high-stakes testing online. MPS does not presently have the number of computers or space to achieve that order, and money it cannot get this year means by default that the district's request for more funds from residents in the near future is only going to be ratcheted. Superintendent Dr. George Noflin Jr. said the district is doing the best it can with what it has. "We have some great needs. Many of our schools are old and there are portable school buildings," he said. If the bond proposal is rejected by voters, Noflin said making improvements would become much more difficult moving forward. "It would also indicate a lack of community support," he said. One area that may or may not provide flexibility for the board, Noflin acknowledged, is the necessary costs for computer labs, depending on what, if any penalties or plans the state would lay out for districts without the funds or the computers when the uniformed testing starts. Noflin said to his knowledge, right now there is only one district that is ready for the testing. "I know we are not the only district in this predicament," he said. "And the state has offered no guidance" on this question. So the question lingers: What should the district do with the bond money, if approved by voters? "It doesn't matter if you have new computers in a building with a leaking roof, you are going to get rained out," Noflin said. However potential funds would be used, Noflin said they are critical. "It would be nice to update and fix our existing structures. We need the community support to help us in those efforts," he said.