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INDEPENDENCE — If school bus purchases aren’t a top priority for Grayson County Public Schools, they may soon become one after the board of supervisors voted May 11 to invest up to $75,000 a year towards the purchases of school buses.
Supervisor Joe Vaughan — a county bus driver, who is serving his final six months on the board — asked his fellow board members to consider earmarking a portion of the revenue the county collects from its county decal fee to purchase school buses.
Vaughan didn’t ask for the entire amount in the fund — which was first established for this purpose, he said — but instead asked the board to consider putting up one-half of the annual amount into a school bus purchasing fund.
On average, the county collects about $300,000 a year from county decals, meaning Vaughan was looking for an annual appropriation of nearly $150,000.
Buses have long been an issue for the school system, and those on the road are aging and approaching the life span the state recommends for a school bus.
However, with funds tight in recent budgets, the school system has not been able to replace many buses each year, and has consistently fallen behind on replacements.
Vaughan noted that the county will eventually have to buy the buses anyway. He said this fund was a way to show additional support to the school system and provide it with money to buy one of its most-needed items.
County Administrator Jonathan Sweet said the idea could work. Fifty percent of the decal revenue would go into the general fund and the other half would go into an appropriation fund, specifically for the purchase of school buses.
Additionally, Sweet noted that the board would have authority over those funds and decide when that money was appropriated to the school board.
Sweet said this plan was just another way that the county is looking to prepare itself for large capital expenses.
“We need to do that,” he said, noting that the county has been “running a very tight budget,” yet it expects to have to make large purchases in the future. “There’s no room [for large purchases] currently. The concept of planning for the future is positive.”
Vaughan reiterated that the county’s decal fee was put into place years ago for this very reason, but once the school system got caught up on bus purchases, the money was simply put back into the county’s general fund.
“We’re just getting in deeper and deeper on those buses,” said Vaughan, Providence District representative on the board. “Eventually [the school board] is going to come back [with a request] and the county is going to have to purchase [the buses] anyway.”
Sweet agreed and noted that, with the recent trends in state and federal funding going down, the school system will eventually hit a level of funding that won’t allow it to operate.
“Somewhere down the line, if the trend continues, it’s going to cost the county something,” Sweet added.
Supervisor Mike Maynard questioned why — despite dropping enrollment numbers — the county had to continue increasing its contribution to education, while the state was able to drop its contributions based on lower numbers of students.
Sweet explained that because of the composite index — a formula used to determine a locality’s ability to pay for education — the county is mandated to pay what the state says it must pay in order to obtain all the state funding.
Maynard understood that, but felt that the school system had been managing its budget as if no funding has ever been decreased.
With fewer students, Maynard said, the school system should be able to operate on less funding and stop trying to operate as though it still has all those students.
Maynard added that if books and buses are a priority for the school system, they should demonstrate that in the budget.
Chairman Larry Bartlett mentioned the recurring theme in the budget preparation was to “prepare for the future.”
Bartlett said he felt the board should start preparing to find a solution to replacing old and outdated models.
“I believe that we need to make this fund available and begin a capital improvement program on bus replacement,” Bartlett said. “The school’s not going to do it, but that does not take away the underlying problem that buses are needed. The issue is whether we want to begin replacing those buses on our own initiative.”
Bartlett felt that the school board would expect that money each year, but at any time the supervisors could stop appropriating it and take the funds back. “To give them 50 percent of these funds shows that we’re serious about funding education and that we’re serious about the children.”
Maynard questioned what had changed in the past few weeks to make the supervisors think now is the time to fund school buses. The school system asked for money to buy buses in its proposed budget and the supervisors voted to provide only minimum funding, he said.
“Where do we get the $150,000 to fund it?” Maynard questioned.
Sweet said it would be a challenge to find in the 2011-12 budget, but asked for a compromise that only 25 percent of the money be put aside.
“It will be a challenge at $150,000 next year,” Sweet said. “Twenty-five percent is something that is doable.
Bartlett added that the only place to pull the money from would be the $350,000 that was budgeted for a reserve fund — something the county currently does not have.
“So we’re abandoning the plan the first year we have it,” Maynard said, questioning the decision to already pull from a reserve fund the county is trying hard to build for emergencies. “If you take from the reserve the first year you have it, you have walked away from [the larger plan]. We had the opportunity four weeks ago to give them this money and we chose not to. What have we learned in those last few weeks that makes us change our mind?”
Not answering the question, Vaughan pointed out that just a few years ago the county had to purchase three new buses at once and that this plan would help keep future boards form having to do that.
When asked if he could find 25 percent and not affect the bottom line of the proposed budget, Sweet said it wouldn’t be easy.
“We want to continue our ascent out of debt,” Sweet said, noting that the county pays around $75,000 a year in fees and interest associated with a tax anticipation note.
Sweet said this is just a way of planning ahead for an inevitable purchase.
“Then why didn’t we just give them the money when they asked for it [in the budget proposal] and avoid all this aggravation?” Maynard questioned again.
One solution Sweet suggested was to put money aside during the 2011-12 budget year, but not actually dispense any money to the school system until after April 2013 — allowing the county to build up a reserve for two years before buying any buses.
Vaughan then made a motion to put aside 25 percent or $75,000 (whichever is less) of the total car decal fee revenue each year, with the first appropriation of money not being made available until after April 2013. The motion was seconded by Vice Chairman Doug Carrico and put before the board for discussion.
“In my opinion, they’ve already decided that buses aren’t a priority,” Maynard said.
Carrico offered a suggestion for how the county could force the school system to make new buses a priority.
“There ought to be a clause in there that if we buy one bus, they have to match it with two,” he suggested.
Vaughan was fine with the idea and amended his motion to include the 2-for-1 clause. Carrico seconded the motion again and it was taken to vote.
The motion passed 4-1, with the dissenting vote coming from Maynard.