As school enrollment swells, backlog of MNPS capital projects also grows

Sunday, January 15, 2012 at 10:05pm
Kelly Harned (Eric England/SouthComm)

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.”

9 Comments on this post:

By: JeffF on 1/16/12 at 8:17

Yet another IMPORTANT actual government activity that went without funding in the first term of the Deano and his Deaniacs that could have been handled by simply saying no on the "investment" of taxpayer owned revenue into a billion dollar plus "loss leader". Who does Nashville belong to, tourists or Nashvillians?

Of course the plan was set in place years ago to put the crazy discretionary items in the first term and push the real items into the 2nd term. That way they can straight-face the need for tax increases, no one gets voted out of office for raising taxes, and they still get the items they built/bought in the first term.

4 years from now it will all start again. Metro council term limits just are not working. There is no check on the mayor's office in Nashville because no one else has any political capital.

By: Balo on 1/16/12 at 10:00

Someone always pays in the future when a bad decision is made in the past. Hume-Fogg should have been closed years ago and the magnet school should have been placed at West End High School. "Figure it out".

By: Nitzche on 1/16/12 at 10:03

Ed Kindall and capital campaign funds? I tell you what, let's put Gracie Porter in charge. no wait a minute.... Al Sharpton..problem solved!

By: hummingbirdhill on 1/16/12 at 2:35

Maybe putting Hume Fogg at the for front will get some press and if that works - good. But my daughter's school has just as many AP courses (26), has a more diverse population than HFHS, has more awards winning programs (because it has more after school opportunities), has not been on any state list academically and is a high school that continues to produce students who received over 4 million in scholarships. Yep a Metro school - . The biggest factor it has IN COMMOM with Hume Fogg? It has had success despite the NO resources pitched its way.

The big difference IT IS A ZONED school and has a large number of students on free and reduced lunch, which can make any parent step back.

My point is -the public should demand a list -a highly specific list of the projects. This high school has half a building with no air conditioning. It uses an ancient form of cooling/heating called a chiller/boiler. Bet it is not the only school doing this. This system breeds mold, it produces only one temperature of air, and it can not be switched back and forth. As long as it is hot - the chiller will maybe make cold water that flows over a pipe that goes through each room that has a box and fan. Turn the fan on the air is pushed over the cold pipe to cool the air and go out of the box. Switch the chiller over to the boiler system and it gets warm outside in November - too bad so sad - It may be 75 outside BUT she says there is no way to turn off the heat. The room will have heat whether they need it or not, a lot of heat. So all the kids want to do is go to sleep. Well, no kidding. She says the teachers do everything to keep them awake when this happens - and with a fall and mild winter like we have had - it has happened a lot.

Parents investigates you child's needs. look for a list, then ask questions. It is time we think about the buildings - they matter to the kids. Ask the kids - they will tell you how it makes them feel. No one wants to go to school in a pit.

By: JayBee56 on 1/16/12 at 9:01

All good posts. There is no excuse for not fixing what's broken. Too much power in the hands of the mayor and no accountability demanded by the voters. This has to change. Removing council term limits and revamping Metro government is a good start. Metro government is approaching 50 years. Time to do some serious reorganization to make it more accountable and less of a massive behemoth that vacuums up taxes but gives nothing in return.

By: Moonglow1 on 1/17/12 at 10:31

Moonglow1: the Governor and the Mayor need to stop funneling public funds to their friends that own charter schools. Public funds should be allocated to public schools not charter schools. The reason why there is a lack of public school funding is because the money is being siphoned off to pay for what should be privately funded charter schools. It is not only a Tennessee problem, but a national issue in particular with Tea Party leadership at the helm.

I agree with term limits for all politicians.


By: millenboy on 1/17/12 at 5:34

Priorities, Priorities, Priorities. Government has certain basic duties at its foundation. Public safety, education, sanitation, and streets. Until those basic needs are fully met everything else is a luxury. Museums, parks, arenas are all nice, but not at the expense of the basic government mission.

Investing in the our schools capital projects is a winning investment for every taxpayer. Replacing the thousands of window air conditioners alone would save thousands each year in energy and maintenance cost. Most of the older school building are energy hogs with outdated windows, HVAC, and lighting.

I see constant press concerning new building downtown, public and private receiving LEED certification as energy efficient and environmental friendly. An investment in the physical infrastructure would have savings for the next twenty years.

It is time for Metro government to stop worrying about the icing when there are problems with the cake.

Proper prioritization of needs versus wants would probably alleviate the need for a tax increase and still provide funds for the foundational needs of the community.

By: BigPapa on 1/19/12 at 9:25

We could take $7M and give it to the Preds (owned by a conglomerate of millionaires) or we can install a massive HD TV at LP Field (owned by a billionaire) or we can buy land and give to some millionaires so they can play minor league baseball, OR... we could use the money for so actual Metro students might benefit.
Nah.... no way that gets down.

By: jsabrown on 1/19/12 at 10:10

Term limits are a crutch for a lazy electorate, and they expose government to the tender mercies of monied special interests. Lobbyists are not term-limited, and they're perfectly happy to "help" with the writing of laws for inexperienced politicians.

Aside from the welfare-for-millionaires BigPapa is rightfully piqued about and all these pet privately-owned "charter schools" that are sucking down public money, let's not forget that big-ole albatros convention center that we're having to pay for. Think of how many school repairs Mayor Dean's budget could handle if we didn't have to service over a half-billion dollars in bonds for the monstrosity that got Nashville's debt downgraded.

We shoulda hung it around his neck and sent him packing.