Fayette faces building issues, consolidation, and bond vote
By Jim Workman, The State Journal
History shows that the voters of Fayette County are not in favor of passing a bond for their schools.
They have not passed a bond since 1973.
In fact, it has not even been close. Support in favor of a bond has been very low. Two bonds that failed — in 2001 and 2009 — received only 13.8 percent and 23 percent of the vote in favor of a bond, respectively. And now in 2015, the Fayette County Board of Education finds itself with many buildings in disrepair or worse.
The failure of some county facilities may have pushed the issue to emergency mode, and voters will have an opportunity to vote for a bond again this year.
“It has caused some people to have a different perspective,” said Serena Starcher, the county's interim superintendent. “No one has said it's going to be easy (passing a bond), especially with our past history.”
Starcher had been tasked with putting together another bond, with hopes of putting it out for a vote this June. Has the anti-bond mindset in Fayette changed?
“Will they vote for a bond? I can't say,” Starcher said. “They may not like what's in the bond. But I think they can at least see that we have an issue with facilities. I think it's changed.
“It's my duty as superintendent to provide the option for citizens to vote, for or against, as a way to approve school facilities. I think it's a new day — I hope it's a new day for Fayette County. I believe it is. I'm excited to be here.”
Starcher said simply the students of Fayette County deserve better than they're getting.
“It's going to take all of us — not just the school system — but the community, parents, business leaders, everyone coming together to move things forward,” she said.
Starcher has been interim superintendent for Fayette County since July 1, 2014.
She worked at the state department of education from 2002 to 2007 before she left to become the Fayette County associate superintendent in May 2007.
“I came here in my associates' position when Fayette County was still under local control,” Starcher said. “The Fayette board hired me almost eight years ago and I appreciate that.
“I've developed a great number of relationships with people, in the central office, the schools and in the community. Fayette County is a wonderful place to be. There are wonderful people here.”
Starcher said the school system has challenges, but said the school system also can't fix everything by itself.
“It's going to take a commitment from everyone in Fayette County to fix what's wrong,” she said. “The issues that we face didn't happen overnight, and they're not going to be solved overnight.”
The biggest chore on Fayette County's schedule lately has been the task of putting together its Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plan.
“Last August, we began a review of the 10-year facilities plan, the CEFP,” Starcher said. “We spent about three and a half to four months reviewing the plan, to decide if we wanted to make any changes.
“We had a group of citizens, representatives of the county — did they want to propose an amendment to the CEFP? or did they want to leave it as it was at the time? I can't thank the citizens that were involved enough. They gave up a lot of evenings to have these meetings, held at each high school.“
Starcher presented the work to the state board in December. But things changed again, adding to the laundry list of building problems.
“In January, we had some facility failures at Collins Middle School,” Starcher explained. “We went through a structural review of all of our facilities since then.
“We lost the second floor of a building at Meadow Bridge High School. We lost a classroom at Mount Hope Elementary School.”
Starcher said no students were relocated and they were moved to existing buildings at Meadow Bridge and Mount Hope, but students and staff at Collins weren't as lucky.
After the structural review, in February Starcher reported to the state board that Fayette County was ready to move forward with a bond.
Getting out there
Starcher's double duties in addition to her regular office commitments have included educating the citizens of Fayette County about the state of their school structures over the last several months.
She has made herself accessible to the public, posting her email address on the Fayette County website, encouraging feedback. She attends every community meeting she is invited to, she said.
“It is important to me,” Starcher said. “The community meetings that we've had have been great. We've had great turnouts. People have been interested in what's happening in their school system.
“I believe that we're working well together.”
Community leaders have called meetings in the last month, many of which Starcher has attended.
“I'm happy to attend, if I'm invited,” she said. “They're very committed, making sure that the people of Fayette County have an opportunity to ask questions.
“People are coming together, trying to get information out to citizens so that they know the true state of affairs in Fayette County.”
Starcher said the county has been able to work with the School Building Authority in the past, but Collins needs $27 million, and the county can't get that on its own.
There have been a lot of great things going on in Fayette County over the last several decades — from the whitewater rafting industry, Bridge Day, “cool towns” and the Boy Scouts of America moving its camp to The Summit at Bechtel Reserve.
But progress could be stalled by infrastructure failures and poorly equipped schools, some fear.
“Hopefully the school system can overcome the facility challenges that it has,” Starcher said. “We'll put a bond before the citizens and see where we go from there.
“A good school system attracts people to an area. I'm a parent of a young child. I want to live in a place where my son can receive a good education. I want that for all parents of Fayette County.”
Starcher said the bond vote could go before voters in June.
“It has been challenging,” she said. “There are so many needs in Fayette County. The CEFP is huge. There are many projects and many issues."
A $38.9 million bond was published on the Fayette County Board of Education website March 17. It calls for the closure of Fayetteville High School and Meadow Bridge High School, with the students consolidating with Midland Trail High School students in a renovated MTHS building in Hico.
The bond also would allow for new schools for Collins Middle, Mount Hope Elementary, a renovation at Oak Hill High School, HVAC replacement at Ansted Middle, renovated athletic fields at Valley High, and classroom additions at Fayette Plateau Vo-Tech.
“We lost three buildings at Collins Middle School and have two remaining,” Starcher said. “That's a huge need. That (Collins) project alone is $27 million.
“Our bonding capacity is just under $76 million. My goal is to keep it at about half of that. We're going to ask citizens to pay for this, so we have to be mindful of their obligations. They have families to support and bills to pay.”
Additional money could be available as well.
“We are working with the School Building Authority as well, and hope to receive some funding from the SBA should the bond pass,” Starcher said. “I want to maximize the dollars that come from Fayette County residents and any that we may receive from the SBA to address our most pressing issues first.”
The county's students and their needs must come first, Starcher said.
“We have to remain focused on our top goal and priority, and that it to provide a safe learning environment for our students; one that prepares them for their next stage in life,” she said.
“Right now, we are falling short in doing that.”