The committee approved the $141-million budget after the Wilson County school board approved the budget Monday night during a special called meeting. Wilson County Schools deputy director Mickey Hall said most expenses in the budget were relative to new staff, the opening of Springdale Elementary School in Mt. Juliet, teacher pay, infrastructure and more.
Commissioner Wendell Marlowe initiated conversation about the needs assessment list before the meeting adjourned, implying the issue was too urgent to delay discussion.
Items on the list included funding for bus driver pay raises, a digital transformation plan, a new high school in Mt. Juliet, a summer roofing program and a 4 percent raise for teachers.
The biggest financial need is for the new high school in Mt. Juliet on property adjacent to W.A. Wright Elementary School, estimated at $110 million.
Wilson County Finance director Aaron Maynard said it would cost 12-18 cents on the tax rate to fund the Mt. Juliet high school, dependent upon how the debt payment is structured. Maynard also reiterated his statements following last year’s tax increase, noting the county would be strapped for funds for future school construction projects until 2025, based on projections, noting any project would likely require a tax increase.
“I just know that we’re going to have to have a place for these kids and just turning a blind eye to the building program is just – I think it’s a fool way to run a business. You’re going to have to have a place to put the students, and if you wait, it’s going to cost more,” Marlowe said.
Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto rejected Marlowe’s “blind eye” remark and said the county has financed several building projects in recent years, including a new middle school in Gladeville and several renovation projects.
“I don’t know that we’ve turned a blind eye to our building program. We, finally, don’t have any portables. I think we’ve worked hard,” Hutto said. “I think everybody knows we’re just trying to balance it right now. It’s a tough call.”
“I just know when we built Lebanon High School, we went around and around and around for about two years. Before we spend $110 million, I’d like to see us go around at least once,” committee chairman Mike Justice said.
Wilson County Schools director Donna Wright noted the district has about 515 more students than when schools closed in May, noting six additional students joined Mt. Juliet on Tuesday.
“We’re going to hit some diminish in returns at Mt. Juliet High School at a certain point. What will happen is the courses that make it very unique – especially when you look at advanced placement and honors courses – you’re going to have to hit those core requirements at the expense of those other sections. You’re going to have to move west to east. But, the thing is we have two other high schools that are popping [2,000 students],” Wright said.
“At the current rate we’re going now, a year from now, you’re looking at Mt. Juliet having close to 2,500 kids. They’re above 2,200 right now. Lebanon and Wilson Central are both knocking on that 2,000 door. Watertown is growing every day. We don’t have room around those schools to put anymore portables,” Wilson County school board chairman Larry Tomlinson said.
Tomlinson said the board would “step up and meet that challenge” if construction of a new high school is delayed.
“We don’t have any other choice. If we don’t have a school, then when we go to rezoning, it’s going to come from the west toward the east, then we’re going to have some real serious issues when we think about what we have to do with them then,” Tomlinson said.
The group also lightly discussed other options for funding school building projects aside from property taxes. Tomlinson and Justice agreed it would take several meetings between the groups to determine a suitable, feasible plan.
Maynard said the current school administration and commission could be in their situation due to former members of each body.
“There’s not been a year that I’ve been here that we have not had schools under construction, three, four or five renovations – there’s not been a single year,” said Maynard, who highlighted Justice’s comments about time spent debating Lebanon High and other projects.
“I don’t know how many years that fight went on. That was before I got here. But, we spent so much time fighting over building schools – or the then-administration and commission – spent so much time fighting over schools that we didn’t actually build any. Now, we’re playing catch up for the fact that, historically, people sat on their hands and didn’t want to raise property taxes and we didn’t get the schools built when we needed,” Maynard said.