Opp refinancing vote today; Super says money better spent in schools

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 21, 2016

Improving the fire department is among the items on Mayor John Bartholomew’s list.

Improving the fire department is among the items on Mayor John Bartholomew’s list.

The Opp City Council will decide this morning whether the city will refinance a portion of the 2007 bond issue that paid for the new Opp Elementary School.

Opp Mayor John Bartholomew told council members Tuesday he wants to use the potential $700,000 to $800,000 that a refinance would net to fund what he calls much-needed projects for the city, including stadium improvements at Channell-Lee Stadium, a new roof at the Opp Public Library, upgrades at the Opp Fire Department and new bathrooms at Hardin Street Community Center.

But Superintendent Michael Smithart expressed his disdain for the city taking the money, and said he would no longer pledge school funds toward the debt payment.

When the bonds were issued in 2007, the city council and school board entered an agreement. The council passed a 1-cent sales tax for education to repay the debt; however, when that sales tax doesn’t generate enough money for the payment, the school board uses proceeds of a 4-mill property tax for education to service the debt.

The school board previously had considered refinancing the bonds, and using funds generated solely for school-related projects.

On Wednesday, Smithart shared what the school board would like to do with the money.

“Our first priority would be to complete the stadium project,” he said. “We want to continue our fencing and lighting, renovate the existing concession area and restrooms, and add a locker room that could serve as a storm shelter.”

Smithart also said the air conditioning systems that are more than 40 years old need to be replaced.

“They are well past their life expectancy and it is just a matter of time before we have major HVAC issues,” he said. “We also need to upgrade our network. Our students deserve access to the latest technology, and we are bound by our current capacity. We need greater bandwidth to our schools in order to meet their needs.”

At Tuesday night’s council meeting, Bartholomew said he had asked Smithart if the school board would want to split the funds generated by refinancing the bond issues and Smithart declined.

“I am of the belief that those were designated as school bonds,” Smithart said Wednesday. “Revenues pledged to schools have made the payments and any savings are a product of those factors. I would be remiss in my duties as superintendent if I did not advocate for those funds.”

On Tuesday night, Smithart said it was the system’s contention that the spirit of the bonds that the portion for the elementary school was for the schools and should be used for the schools.

Bartholomew interjected that wasn’t the case.

On Wednesday, the Star-News attempted to make contact with members of the city administration that approved the bond issue and sales tax for clarification.

Jimmy Rogers, who represented District 2 at the time, said he didn’t remember, but former Mayor H.D. Edgar said Smithart was correct.

“It was our intention that that be for education,” he said. “Our children are our future.”

A part of the ordinance Bartholomew hopes to pass, changes section 10 of the original ordinance, which governs where the 1-cent sales tax money goes.

The new ordinance says, “Accordingly, it is necessary for the council to amend section 10 of the original sales tax ordinance to provide for the direct distribution of the proceeds of the school sales tax to Regions Bank, as paying agent for the Series 2007 school warrants and the Series 2016 school warrants to provide the payment of the principal of and interest on the Series 2007 school warrants and the series 2016 school warrants are due.”

The original section 10, says that “the tax proceeds, including those collected by the probate judge, shall then be distributed on a monthly basis to the Opp City Schools and shall be deposited in an account earmarked for the construction of a new elementary school. The Opp City Schools Board of Education is further authorized to pledge the revenue deposited to such account, along with any interest income thereon, to pay a bond issue for the construction of a new school.”

The council will meet in a special-called meeting today at 10.