BRISTOL, Va. — City leaders found precious little consensus Wednesday during an hourlong discussion about how much money to allocate for school improvements.
After meeting with the School Board last month to discuss school needs, the council delved into strategies to make school buildings compliant with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and address safety and structural concerns. On Wednesday, each council member opined on different aspects of the problem before agreeing to postpone any real decision until at least the council’s June 25 meeting. They are scheduled to reconvene with the School Board July 1.
The council recently appropriated $100,000 for some immediate work at three elementary schools with plans to approve another $100,000 after the new fiscal year begins July 1.
Estimates provided by school division consultants placed those costs at between $14 million and $63 million — depending on the degree of work undertaken and if all schools would be included.
Mayor Kevin Mumpower urged the council to agree to establish two separate funds — one for improvements to existing schools and another to save money toward ultimately building a new elementary school.
“I think we should put some monies into these new school funds to get them started,” Mumpower said. “And then keep adding to that as cash flows allow. I think that is a reasonable approach.”
The mayor suggested the school system would bring a list of projects to the council, and the council would approve what it could pay for at a given time with monies from its dedicated funds.
Councilman Bill Hartley said it was too soon to dedicate money into specific school funds.
“The more funds you set up and [the more] you restrict them — I’d hate to find ourselves to where we have a desperate need for funding, but we have money that is so restricted that we cannot get to it,” Hartley said. “I just don’t see that we set up these other funds on our side that are nowhere near a sufficient level and consider setting up additional funds. … We need to set up our own capital funds for city needs. We need to take care of that first.”
Mumpower also pledged that he and board Chairman Randy Alvis, who was in attendance, would develop a plan to decide which entity will be responsible for building maintenance.
Vice Mayor Kevin Wingard said council should only focus on the short-term needs, not worry about funds for a new building, and renewed his call for school officials to review their budget and commit some funds toward any improvements.
Councilman Neal Osborne said, since there was no consensus on what that amount might be, the conversation should resume at the June 25 meeting.
Mumpower said he had no objection to putting it off until that meeting to give them time to get more information and find out what their fund balances will be by the end of the fiscal year. Osborne again voiced his support for a school division plan to close three elementary schools and build a new school next to Van Pelt Elementary, which could be paid for from savings generated by closing the three older buildings and having fewer employees.
Hartley also said that plan was the most cost-efficient, given it could take years or decades to save the money needed to fund all the suggested improvements.
Councilman Anthony Farnum said he wanted to hear more proposals to build a new elementary school at a more centralized city location — although that would require the city to purchase land.
Mumpower urged the council to table action on two agenda items that would set aside $1.4 million for emergency city needs and $1.7 million dedicated to debt service. However, the council then spent about another hour debating the emergency fund issue before voting 4-1 to approve it.
Hartley said the $1.4 million was insufficient but a good start.
Mayor Mumpower voted against it, saying $1.4 million was too much to dedicate toward unforeseen emergencies.
“Council can’t talk out of both sides of our mouth. If the schools have needs, we shouldn’t put that much in it,” Mumpower said, adding the city hasn’t had that kind of emergency during his tenure. “If its $700,000, I’m for that.”
In other action, the council unanimously approved establishing the dedicated debt reserve fund, starting with $1.7 million.