BOE to continue fight for money

Published 12:58 am Friday, January 22, 2016

Members of the Opp Board of Education said they will continue their efforts to refinance bonds used to build the new elementary school, despite an effort by the mayor to refinance the bonds and use the proceeds for city projects.

Opp Superintendent Michael Smithart

Opp Superintendent Michael Smithart

Opp Superintendent of Education Michael Smithart told board of education members Thursday afternoon that he was already pursuing the refinancing of the bonds, and had immediately discussed the plan with city officials.

But, he said, school officials learned about the city’s intentions with the bond issue via social media.

“We did not know the city’s intention until seeing it on social media,” he said. “We weren’t invited to begin with.”

At present, he said, school officials are collecting data needed to determine their credit rating.

“We have people advising us that we may have a better rating than the city currently has,” Smithart said.

If the school board has a better rating, it would like to take the debt from the elementary school and refinance it as stand alone debt. The proceeds from the savings would go to fund projects that are outlined in the system’s capital plan, including new HVAC systems, upgraded technology networks and finishing improvements at Channell-Lee Stadium.

The city also has improvements at Channell-Lee Stadium on its list of projects to be completed with a refinance; however, the scope of the project is smaller.

Smithart said if the council had approved a proposed ordinance to refinance the bonds Thursday morning, the school board’s hands would have been tied.

“In talking with state officials, we have found this is incredibly unusual,” he said. “The state department can’t remember a time when a municipality staked claim to money allocated for the school system. They also can’t remember a time when a school board had to fight for their money. The state department says if there are proceeds, they belong to the school.”

Since the city has already refinanced its portion of the 2007 bonds, 100 percent of the bonds being refinanced are from the elementary school project.

Smithart said the voting public has been extremely supportive of the system, and has renewed every ad valorem tax in the last six or seven years that needed to be renewed.

“We know that this ordinance wasn’t about a bond issue, it was about diverting tax money,” he said. “The people of this town have supported us 90 percent on tax renewals.”

Smithart said he believes the school board’s job is to “beat the drum” to ensure that the money they believe is rightfully theirs ends up going to education.

Board member Walter Burgess suggested finding a third party who knows about these issues.

“Someone who doesn’t have a dog in this fight to sit down and let’s talk with the mayor,” he said. “But who is that.”

Smithart said he believes they just need to “dig in our heels and make a case for these school bonds. We don’t deviate from that stance.”

Board president Rothel Moody said he agreed.

Burgess suggested they turn the scenario of 50-50 on the city and tell them that the city’s 50 percent is fixing the stadium since it belongs to the city.