Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet High School routinely ranks atop Metro’s highest-performing schools, receiving ink annually in Newsweek as one of the best high schools in the nation.
But the downtown Broadway school also finds itself on a less desirable list: an Excel spreadsheet that details Nashville’s schools most in need of repairs and renovation.
And for years, spanning terms of multiple mayors and superintendents, capital needs at this top-tier magnet school have centered on one elusive project: a full, functional gym with bleachers to replace an undersized facility that dates back to the school’s 1912 beginning. The plan has long been to construct a new gym to adjoin the school along Eighth Avenue. Funding, however, has never been allocated.
“We’re the only public high school in the state of Tennessee without a full regular gym,” said Paul Fleming, principal of Hume-Fogg since 2006 after starting as a teacher there in 1994. “That’s been somewhere on the capital budget every year for about the last 15 years.”
Once again, $8 million for the acquisition of land and construction of Hume-Fogg is carved out in a capital master plan, which the Metro Nashville Board of Education approved Tuesday without discussion. Millions more are set aside for Hume-Fogg for other essential infrastructure improvements.
Fleming said Hume-Fogg’s restrooms are in “pretty bad shape,” but he’s grateful money finally flowed in to begin fixing leaky roofs and the floors that water infiltration has ruined. He said he’s “hopeful” funding is available to address the gym situation and other needs.
But Hume-Fogg isn’t the only school that could use repairs, renovations or additions.
The school board Tuesday signed off on a six-year capital master plan outlining capital needs from 2012-2018, a dollar figure that totals $184 million for the next fiscal year. There’s an important footnote, however: The school board’s approval did not actually award funds for these projects. In reality, the master plan amounts to a wish list, not unlike versions the school board approves every year.
Capital investments in Metro schools require funding authorization from Mayor Karl Dean and the Metro Council. For the ongoing 2011-12 fiscal year, Dean opted against allocating money for capital projects across all Metro departments, creating what some call a backlog in school infrastructure needs. In effect, projects are piling up.
“If you look at last year’s budget, you’ll see a six-year plan that we laid out that addressed everything we thought we needed to happen over the next six years,” school board member Michael Hayes said. “A year of that was wiped out. So, year one of this new budget basically combines year one and two of what we approved last year.
“This is a list that outlines what our need is, and when we figure out what the final allocation is, we have to prioritize the need,” he said.
The school board’s latest capital-project exercise –– the board never gets all the projects it identifies –– concluded as Dean’s administration kicks off what many observers say could be a rocky budget process following years of declining revenue. Dean tapped a prominent Democratic pollster to conduct a phone survey earlier this month testing the mood of a property tax increase, which would be the first such hike in Davidson County since 2005.
Dean’s pledge to fully fund schools, and make public education his top priority, will be tested this year. Capital spending is set apart from the school system’s operating budget.
When asked about the decision to withhold school infrastructure spending for the current year, Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling said the city had undertaken a few “robust” capital-spending projects in previous years.
“Essentially, everybody’s got to understand that we’re going to live within our means,” Riebeling said. “I know there’s a lot of needs, but I can go to Public Works, and they can tell me they’ve got $100 million in roads, or whatever the number is they want to pay. I can go to schools; I can go to libraries; I can go to IT. Every department in government has a lot of needs, but we’ve got to decide what we can afford.”
As for whether capital spending will be authorized this spring, “I would certainly hope so, but it’s all dependent on revenues and where we are,” Riebeling said.
The average age of Metro’s school buildings is 42 years old. Aging structures require basic upkeep and maintenance. In some Nashville schools, HVAC systems need to be replaced. In others, plumbing and electrical wiring are issues.
“It’s those kinds of things, the aging of systems, as much as anything,” said Joe Edgens, the district’s longtime director of facilities and operations, who retired in December but remains in the district’s central office in a part-time capacity. He said the master plan also identifies money for roof replacements, furniture, new buses and sports facility renovations, among numerous other categories.
Over his 23-year stint at Metro, Edgens said he recalls “a half dozen years” when capital spending for schools wasn’t delivered. He believes Dean and the council have “looked very favorably” at schools: “We’re very fortunate. We don’t have any schools that are in unsafe conditions.”
Still, growth has added to Metro’s infrastructure needs, with the district’s enrollment swelling to 78,000 students. Edgens recalled several years ago when the district employed 591 portable classrooms outsides schools across the county. That number has reduced significantly, he said, but he estimated there are collectively 350 portables at 70 schools across the district, some 200 used as classrooms.
Portables are found in perhaps some unexpected places. Julia Green Elementary, situated in an upscale Green Hills neighborhood and the beneficiary of recent building renovations via a private Frist family donation, has added four new portables to meet the demands of growth, bringing its total of portable classrooms to six.
“In a nutshell, we are kind of bursting at the seams, which is in some ways a good problem to have,” Julia Green principal Robin Cayce said. “The student body has steadily increased every year.”
The district’s capital plan identifies $2.8 million in funding needs for a 12-classroom addition at Julia Green. But until Dean and the council authorize it, some Julia Green students will continue to take Chinese and other language arts courses in portables, which teachers have begun to name, including one known as “the island.”
At other schools, there is expected growth as a result of new programs. North Nashville’s John Early Middle, for example, was recently overhauled as a museum-themed magnet school. With the new programs, school district officials have also targeted a need for a $3.7 million expansion for 12 new classrooms.
School board member Ed Kindall, who chairs the board’s capital needs committee, said he’s unsure where the mayor’s office stands on capital spending this year. Compared to schools in other districts across the country, though, Kindall said the condition of Metro’s buildings fares pretty favorably. He doesn’t believe the backlog of projects is excessive.
“There may be some [projects] on a backlog, and of course, there would be, because we didn’t spend the previous year,” Kindall said. “But our schools are in pretty good shape overall. Some of them are just buildings that have gotten old and need renovations.”