Commissioners balk at county school's budget

Xavier Smith • Updated Jul 21, 2017 at 8:00 AM

Several Wilson County Commissioners joined together to ask residents to deeply analyze the Wilson County School’s proposed needs list. 

Commissioners Joy Bishop, Cindy Brown, Frank Bush, Bobby Franklin, John Gentry, Jerry McFarland, Dan Walker and Diane Weathers submitted a joint letter of concern regarding the school system’s needs lists, which includes several items. 

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 four 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, which was the focus of the group’s letter. 

The group questioned the site, purchased last year, and its topography. 

“Adding the $5,850,000 purchase price, the $115 million estimated final cost of this new high school will exceed the combined costs of the new Mt. Juliet and Lebanon High Schools, both of which were built in the last 10 years,” the letter read. 

Wilson County Schools deputy director Mickey Hall discussed the figures relative to Lebanon High School’s $40-million construction earlier this month with the Wilson County Education Commission. 

“Here’s what you have to understand – don’t get hung up on that because that was during the bottom of the economy. That’s when contractors were going out of business left and right and we got a bargain. I’m just telling you what schools are bidding today. They’re bidding at $200 per square foot. I’m giving you a hard number not a budget number,” Hall said, noting the construction of a new high school in Collierville. 

The Collierville Schools Board of Education authorized about $100 million for a new high school, expected to be able to house 3,000-3,500 students, in 2015, according to board minutes. The 450,000-square-foot school is expected to open next year. 

Hall noted the proposed new Mt. Juliet High School would be 395,000 square feet, mirroring Lebanon High School and slightly larger than Mt. Juliet High School.

The district chose the site on N. Green Hills last year after months of research, debate and community pushback on several locations.

The board has had heartburn over potential sites for a new high school since last year when the first round of responses of requests for proposals failed to appease a majority of the group. The district’s second RFPs failed to receive any additional responses.

The commissioners said in the letter “they understand there is an increase in student population each year, but that population is growing overwhelmingly in our county’s southwest (Providence) area.”

Other potential sites for the board’s 2016 decision included 64 acres on Benders Ferry; 65 acres at W. Division Street near Devonshire Drive; 90 acres on S. Mt. Juliet Road; 284 acres on Double Log Cabin Road; and 78 acres at State Route 109 and Highway 70.

Commissioners also raised concerns about a potential property tax increase for residents for any item on the district’s needs assessment list. 

Last year, the Wilson County Commission approved a property tax increase of 35.17 cents more than the state certified rate of 2.1672. The new rate of 2.5189 was lower than the previous rate of 2.5704, but with the rise in property values, most residents saw an increase in property tax payments. 

The increased was used to fund Wilson County employee pay adjustments (15 cents) ; Wilson County Emergency Management Agency (2.07 cents); county convenient centers (1 cent); Wilson County Schools teacher raises (8.1 cents) and Mt. Juliet area middle school (9 cents).

“Now, we are being asked to consider a budget for Wilson County Schools that, if funded as submitted, would result in another property tax increase of approximately 60 cents per $100 of property values assessed,” the letter read, pointing to all items on the needs assessment list. 

Collierville residents experienced a 25-cent property tax increase to fund their new high school and a property tax increase is likely for Wilson County residents for any future school construction projects in the coming years.

Wilson County Finance director Aaron Maynard implied following last year’s tax increase, 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. 

Hall said enrollment numbers earlier this month showed Mt. Juliet High School with about 2,200 students, Lebanon High School with about 1,960 students and Wilson Central with about 1,950 students.

“If you approve [the new high school] in the month of August, Mt. Juliet High School will be 2,500-2,600 students before it opens. The other two schools will be over 2,000 very easily,” Hall said.

“We got all these houses coming in here. What are we going to do? We need to come together as a group and figure it out,” said Commissioner Chad Barnard, who said a recent incident while working on a home opened his eyes to the magnitude of growth facing the county.

“He sends in the bill – he lives in California. I said, ‘You live in California?’ He said he came to Wilson County and bought four houses to rent for investments. He came here one time a few years ago to Nashville to visit friends and said he saw the area growing,” Barnard said. “What are we going to do? We can’t keep raising property taxes.”

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