School board says construction necessary to keep pace, council weighs funding options

By Staff
Leada Gore, Hartselle Enquirer
Hartselle City School Board is opting to bid out its audit next year, changing its 30-year policy of using the same firm.
Dr. Andrew Dukes, school board president, said the change comes on the heels of questions from city council members about the way the annual audit is handled. The school board had used Wear, Howell, Strickland, Quinn and Law for some 30 years. City council members said they would like to see the auditing firm change annually and some said they'd prefer a state audit.
Dukes said that's not possible.
"The state does not have the manpower to audit city schools. They can only do that for county schools," Dukes said. "But we're going to bid out the audit in the coming year. However, there's never, ever, been any implication of any impropriety on our part."
The audit change is the latest move in a push by the board to get the council to support a funding source for a new $35 million high school. In recent months, the council has opted against passing a 1-cent sales tax and failed to get the unanimous vote needed to introduce a sales tax vote to the local Legislative Delegation. The lone hold-out on the property tax vote, Councilman Bill Drake, was not present at Monday's meeting between the school board and the city council.
The board is also encouraging the council – at the city's expense – to audit its books as far back as it would like.
"We have nothing to hide and our records have always been open," Dukes said.
According to Dr. Mike Reed, the state already does an annual check to make sure the system is complying with federal laws. Another state group checks for system compliance every three years and separate audits are done of individual programs such as child nutrition and special education.
The city already had a copy of the school board audit supplied by the current auditing firm as the system's audit is part of the city's annual audit.
The board is further sweetening the pot by pledging promised state money to the high school project. The city anticipates receiving $2.8 million from a $1 billion state bond issue. The money can only be used for school construction and Duke said the $1 million of those funds will go to the high school. The remainder will go towards other capital projects.
The board currently has a five-year capital expenditure plan of some $2.2 million.
"As a sign of our commitment and an effort to get us moving, we are willing to offer $1 million from that $2.8 million to go towards a new high school," Dukes said.
In return, school board members said they would like more support from the council.
"Don't you think it would help if there was more confidence from y'all (the council) about how we're doing our job?" Dukes said.
Councilman Bill Smelser said the auditing change would be a good first step in answering some of the questions about funding a new high school.
"It's not about what I think," Smelser said. "It's what about the public thinks."
That public perception is what was hurt by the council's questioning of the audit, however.
"Anytime someone questions another's audit procedure it raises the perception something is wrong," School Board member Jeff Gray said. "Take our records 25 years back and get you an audit."
Even that wouldn't be enough for some on the council. Samie Wiley said he would like to see more cuts on behalf of the school system before he could support a tax increase.
"I don't believe you can convince the people of Hartselle to pass a 12.5 mill tax. You've got to show the people you're going to cut back," Wiley said. Wiley said he would like to see an annual commitment made by the school board, much like the one the board is asking the city to make.
Board member Kathy White-Goodwin said that's not possible.
"We don't know what funds the state is going to come in and take away," she said.
Cuts – most of which would come from personnel – would be deep and painful, Gray said.
"Do you want us to cut soccer? Cut two choral events? Football? We're not willing to do that," he said. "You (the council) have got to have the political will to say you're going to do a sales tax or a property tax."
Dukes agreed.
"I am not going to jeopardize the education of our children. I'm not going to do it," he said.

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