By Bill Short
A majority of the Millington School Board members rejected a bid last week that was submitted for construction of a proposed new Performing Arts Center.
They took the action last Thursday night during a special called meeting at City Hall.
Fulwood Construction Co. of Olive Branch, Miss., had submitted the lowest/best bid of $6,368,876.
A motion offered by board Vice Chairman C. J. Haley and seconded by Chairman Cody Childress to accept the bid was defeated by a 4-3 vote, with Mark Coulter, Chris Denson, Larry Jackson and Ronnie Mackin dissenting.
In other action, separate motions to amend the board’s Capital Projects Budget for the current fiscal year and to approve it for next year were defeated by the same four dissenters.
Dr. David Roper, superintendent of Millington Municipal Schools, noted shortly before those actions that the previous board approved the current Capital Projects Budget on May 2, 2016.
He said one of the line items within it was a $6 million bond issue as a “source of revenue” for the design and construction of a fine arts building on the Millington Central High School campus. That budget was then submitted to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, which also approved it.
At its Feb. 6 meeting, the current school board approved an amendment to the Capital Projects Budget that reduced the amount requested for the bond issue to $4 million.
At that time, Roper said, he believed that amount would “sufficiently cover the cost” of the proposed facility.
The board then advertised for bids on the project, but they “came in higher” than he was expecting. So, he concluded that it would be “safer” to request a bond issue “ceiling amount” of $5 million.
Roper said that did not “necessarily” mean the board would borrow the full $5 million. He cited an “indication” that the school system will be receiving money from Shelby County Schools in what is called the “ADA portion of Capital Projects.”
But because that money is “not in hand at this point,” he considered it necessary to propose the $5 million budget amendment to the board last week.
Roper said there is “clearly” money in the school system’s budget to cover the cost of the facility, even if it borrowed the full $5 million.
“There’s no truth whatsoever to the idea that, by borrowing that money, the city would have to raise property taxes,” he noted. “I say that unequivocally.”
Roper said the current and previous school board members know that he recommends budgets with a “very conservative approach” to financing.
“I would never recommend to this board a project or a budget that puts us in jeopardy of upsetting the good financial posture that this school system currently has,” he noted. “The fund balance that has been accumulated in less than three years is not where we want it to be. But it’s come a long way from when it was at zero, which is what we started out with.”
Roper said a $5 million bond issue that is paid off over a 20-year period would require a payment increase of approximately $65,000 a year.
“If I didn’t think the money was there to completely cover that, with a cushion still there, I would not have recommended that,” he concluded.
Shortly before the board’s actions last week, during the portion of the meeting designated for public comments, several individuals expressed their opinions about the construction bid.
Former board member Louise Kennon said that, “like a sword,” social media has two sides, and that many of the current members have been “playing with it.” Calling a half-truth the same as a lie, she said it creates “confusion and misunderstanding” when it is disseminated.
Kennon said the board members who cannot have the school district “move forward” should resign their positions, so others can be appointed to replace them.
“Where were you when we were all in the trenches trying to get this to be an entity?” she asked. “I don’t remember seeing your faces there, and I never missed a meeting.”
Kennon said the school system has an opportunity to “stand tall,” go forward and be successful.
“Millington and its residents deserve the best,” she noted, “not a band-aid and not the bottom of the barrel that Shelby County saw fit to give us.”
Evylou Turner of 4233 Field Oak Road is a retired educator and a current member of the Booster Board for the MCHS Choir.
“Studies have shown the positive results that band, choir and the dramatic arts have on students,” she noted. “These benefits encompass everything from boosting self-esteem to higher scores on college entrance exams.”
Turner said the MCHS Fine Arts and Broadcasting departments deserve an on-campus facility that is “topnotch.”
“Why did we spend the money to tear down the old auditorium if we were not convinced that building a new facility was a good idea?” she asked. “Having to hunt around for performance venues for our critically acclaimed choir does not bode well for Millington or for the school system.”
Turner said other nearby school systems are recognizing that up-to-date performing arts centers are “a wonderful way” to showcase a school and the community that supports it.
MCHS Choir Director Calvin Ellis is a “product” of the school’s Fine Arts Department. While noting that 75 percent of the approximately 900 students are currently enrolled in a fine arts class, he said they would “directly benefit” from the use of a facility on the campus.
“The tradition of excellence in the arts here in the Millington community, specifically in Millington schools, dates back many years,” he said. “My experience at the high school established a foundation for me to gain the appropriate skills that I needed to make a career in the fine arts.”
Megan Woodring, MCHS Band director and music teacher, said she presented many performances in the old auditorium and canceled many because of heat, the lack of it or flooding issues. She believes that, when that building was demolished, the school system “committed” to providing the students a “new space.”
Woodring said she and Ellis typically present joint concerts.
“We were unable to do so this year,” she noted. “We could not come up with a space that could accommodate all of our students, the band equipment and house our audience members.”
Alderman Don Lowry did not ask the board members to vote “against” anything, but to delay the vote, because he has been unable to obtain answers to any questions.
He said he was told that the construction bid was just for the building and not anything inside it, such as seats, curtains or the sound system.
Lowry, who previously served as an alderman for 12 years, said he worked with the city’s residents so they could vote to establish a school system.
“I would like to see our board and your board work together to come up with something that’s going to be good for everybody,” he noted.
Carol Warberg of 8018 Wilkinsville Road said she favors a “measured approach” to the issue. She said the school system created a “crisis” situation when it demolished the old auditorium on the MCHS campus. So, it now must decide whether to “take the approach” to remodel.
Going forward, Warberg said, it would behoove the system to have a long-range plan.
“Just like everything,” she noted, “we have good, better and best that we want. Sometimes, you live with good for awhile, and then you step up. You grow into things.”
By Bill Short