Local elected leaders continue to spar over bond terms

Members of the Caswell County Board of Education and Caswell County Commissioners came together at the historic County Courthouse the afternoon of December 20. The subject was the Bartlett Yancey High School reconstruction project, and which specific roles in the design, planing, bidding, and construction phases will be handled by each board. Representatives of the United States Department of Agriculture, who have been tabbed to service the bond loan to Caswell County, were onhand, and attempted to answer questions. The County Commissioners will again take up the topic at their Monday, January 7 meeting. 

At another special-called session on Thursday, December 20, the Caswell County Commissioners and Board of Education came together to seek a better understanding on the upcoming bond referendum. At a prior meeting on Monday, the two boards clashed over specifics related to contracting and bidding - specifically, which board controls that process. 

Garland Burnette, a North Carolina representative with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which the Caswell County Commissioners have determined will service the loan for Caswell County, came before the two boards Thursday to try and clear up any misunderstandings. 

“The bond referendum passed with about a 60-40 ratio. We’ve had a couple of phone conferences. But this is the first time I’ve had a chance to meet with you guys. It’s good to put some faces to names,” Burnette said. “As far as contracting, I’m going to do my best to clear up any uncertainties.” 

“The owner of the bond is the applicant. Caswell County owns the bond. The owner, as far as construction is concerned, is defined as the applicant,” Burnette explained. “Caswell County would be our applicant. Our guidelines say the construction contract, as well as the other contracts, such as with the engineer, architect - they have to be in the name of the county.”

While the County Commissioners are responsible for the bond debt itself, the School Board, by statute, is responsible for the process of building the school. 

“The School Board, that is their area of expertise. General statute requires they be involved in that process,” Burnette said. “It’s not a process they go through in a vacuum. The County Commissioners are involved in this as well.”

“The Board of Education is familiar with other facilities, and what design and amenities are needed for the children of Caswell County to be competitive. That’s where your expertise lies. The county representatives, the County Commissioners, may have some understanding and knowledge. But probably not as much as the Board of Education. General statute states that you (the Board of Education) will fill that responsibility.” 

“It’s a partnership between the Board of Education and the County Commissioners,” Burnette added. “You need each other. The Commissioners are concerned about costs and taxes, and the Board of Education is concerned about putting the best facility forward for the county. Even though you have a little bit different interests, at the end of the day, the interests for both boards is to put a facility there that will serve the children of Caswell County, and be something the county can be proud of.” 

Caswell County Schools legal counsel drafted a Memorandum of Understanding based off the dialogue at the Monday, December 17 session. Bradsher continued to reiterate the School Board’s position that they will drive the project as far as construction and contracting. 

“You are funding the reconstruction of a high school that has existed for the last 50 years, on property that the School Board owns,” Bradsher said. “If you’re to negotiate who drives the project, it’s going to be an issue.”

“We just haven’t had a chance to react to the draft,” countered the Commissioner’s legal counsel, Brian Ferrell. Ferrell advised the County Commissioners to allow him and themselves more time to read the School Board’s Memorandum of Understanding before taking any formal action. The Commissioners could be prepared to act on the Memorandum of Understanding as soon as their next official meeting, which takes place on January 7. 

“This is a starting point,” Bradsher said of the Memorandum of Understanding. “What it comes down to, your contractors are bidding on a specific set of specs. If there’s a true change that wasn’t part of the original - that’s when you have a true change order. Otherwise, it’s part of the bid. Your architects and contractors and suppliers are held (responsible) for what they did.”

“The board (of Education) is responsible for design. The bidding and construction. The bidding process, the county is responsible for,” Ferrell said in response. “If the county is required to sign the contracts, it must be responsible for the procurement of the architect services, and the construction. It has to do that. It has to do the procurement/bidding process.”

Commissioner Jeremiah Jefferies, who was involved in the last two prior school projects undertaken by Caswell County, agreed that the Board of Education should be responsible for driving the project through construction and beyond. 

“In the past, the Commissioners furnished the money. And the School Board drove the truck. The School Board is looking to the Commissioners to pay that money,” Jefferies said. “As long as we make the payments to USDA, that’s all that’s necessary. I’ve been on this board for three school buildings. The Commissioners never built a school. I just wanted to bring this out. And we always come through with it. There hasn’t been a bad issue yet. We’re about the make the final payment on Dillard (Middle School). The County Commissioners never built the school. We were responsible for the payment, responsible for the debt.”

“The County Commissioners cannot go through without an agreement with the Board of Education,” added Bradsher. “The USDA is not telling the county how to build the school. The USDA is telling us to come to an understanding. That is what the USDA is saying. These boards have to get along and come together. Unless we come up with an agreement, the USDA is not available to buy the bonds.”

The two boards considered putting together a committee, consisting of both Commissioners and Board of Education members, to make the key decisions regarding construction, contracting and bidding. 

“This is your project. We’re here to do the bond,” Burnette said. “You guys will need to determine who your engineering and architectural firm will be. And then, I would hope and think, this committee you’re talking about between the Commissioners and School Board, you would have representatives on both sides. That committee would be responsible for input as far as design. That committee would make periodic presentations to the Commissioners and the School Board. Try to come up with a project that’s acceptable to both.”

Board of Education members Gladys Garland and Donna Hudson stressed the need for the two boards move quickly, lest they potentially pass the deadline and risk losing the $15 million grant provided by the state of North Carolina for the reconstruction of BYHS. 

“It’s amazing we’re here debating this high school. We’ve known for years we had to do something about Bartlett Yancey,” she said. “We’re also talking about the safety of the (other countywide) schools. We started the project for $36 million. With (Superintendent) Dr. (Sandra) Carter’s help, we secured a grant for $15 million. The bill has been reduced by $18 million. We’ve spent a lot of time and effort getting a design in place. We’ve shared the design we would like to do.”  

“We’ve spent a lot of money for the project,” Garland continued. “We have a great opportunity now to do something great for the community. And it seems our dilemma is who is going to be in charge. We already have a great design. There’s no question about the design. We don’t want to lose that money. It would be horrible to the state to say we don’t need that $15 million (grant). So we’ve got to work together. We’ve got to come together.”

“We want to work with you guys any way we possibly can,” added Hudson to the Commissioners. “We want to move forward with this. We wish the USDA would let us use the architectural firm that we’ve already spent money on. I know we’ve got to bid it out. I’m just one person - I’m not speaking for the entire board. But I don’t care how many contracts you sign. I don’t care if you bid anything out. I just want a great high school built for this county. We (the Board of Education) need to be the driving force in pushing (the project). You (the County Commissioners) all have enough red wagons to pull.” 

“This is a great, great project. And we will work with you guys any way we can to move forward,” Hudson added. “We want a high school that we know is great. We want to have input. You put out the bids, but let us look at them. We’ve got a lot of good things going with our board. The delivery method scares me. We have to have shovels in the dirt in September. We can’t take forever on coming up with bidding. I hate to say it like that, put pressure on you. But we’ve got to move forward as quickly as possible, to make that $15 million applicable to us.”

“It’s very apparent that you understand you (the Commissioners) are funding it,” Dr. Carter said to the county leaders. “Our board wants to carry out all the construction. As we’ve done with all the other projects with middle schools and elementary schools in the county. This is what the Board of Education has always done in the past. Why would they not continue with that role? That still gives them what they need to do as far as the design and construction of the school, and it still allows you to fund it. Why can they not continue in an oversight role through that committee?” 

“The board (of Commissioners) can’t delegate these policy-making decisions that way,” said Commissioners attorney Ferrell in response to the Superintendent. 

As the meeting wore down, the impatient Board of Education members pushed for formal action. But the Commissioners elected to wait and review the School Board’s Memorandum of Understanding, leading to a final climactic struggle on the subject to come after the first of the year.  

“Will the Board of Education be the driving force (of the project)? Garland asked to Commissioner Chair Rick McVey. 

“We’re not going to do anything that this attorney does not recommend us do. We’re going off his recommendation,” said McVey. “He is going to know this thing backwards and forwards before we are going to make a decision.” 

“I am confident that these boards can work together and generate a project that is to benefit all the residents of Caswell County,” added Ferrell. “It’s going to take some work to hammer this thing. But I’m fully confident we’re going to get there. It’s a real opportunity for the boards to take. I get the issues. Defining the issues is the first step. But I haven’t heard anything that’s insurmountable. I think there’s a step forward.”