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Bells, we ate your school

Editorial Note: The Colletonian used information requested from officials at the Colleton County School District (CCSD) and combed through public documents posted online by the CCSD to discover how public funds were spent from 2011-to the present. This overall estimate of funds spent in this time frame is considered somewhat erroneous by The Colletonian staff: it is our view that at least a portion of these funds could have been spent more wisely, and perhaps designated toward the refurbishment or new construction of a new Bells Elementary School. While this is a news piece, it includes the collective opinion of the news staff on this matter.

More than $450,000 in public money was spent in a three-year stint within the Colleton County School District, mostly on items not related to students or education purposes.

According to documents provided by the Colleton County School District and their financial postings, approximately $300,000 was spent on food from 2011 through 2013. This food was not related to cafeteria needs or to student needs, but rather spent on district-issued credit cards (P-Cards) for snacks and teacher and staff meetings.

Additionally, roughly $5,000 a month was spent on travel and miscellaneous expenses each month of the academic school year, with district officials spending $4,000 in some summer months. The miscellaneous expenses are not related to school field trips, student activities, school supplies or classroom needs. Instead, these funds were mostly spent on district travel to conferences and training, as listed in the school district’s public financial transactions. In the month of January of 2011, for example, an estimated $7,000 was spent on such items. In July of one year, a district-level conference in Myrtle Beach cost the taxpayers about $4,000, according to collected documents.

These expenses have not occurred under the supervision of the school district’s Acting Superintendent, Dr. Franklin Foster, who was appointed by the school board in his new role barely three months ago after the board terminated former Supt. Leila Williams. In his short tenure, Franklin has undergone a review of the district’s finances and has already noted publicly ways to save approximately $300,000 in public funds for the upcoming fiscal budget, including cutting back on personnel and rerouting some personnel from schools in the district.

The school district also underwent its first Procurement Audit earlier this year, with the results showing that several P-Card transactions were made inappropriately. In response to this state-mandated audit, the school district has revised its P-Card policy to include such changes as not issuing P-Cards to people who are not district employees and no longer allowing food purchases be made on a P-Card.

Recent estimates put a price tag of $11.5 million on building a new Bells Elementary School, an issue that has stirred controversy among the district’s communities and school board members. The current Bells Elementary School is more than 50 years old, and, according to a formal opinion issued last month by the Lillio Architecture firm, is in need of roof upgrades, restroom repairs, upgraded security measures and electrical upgrades. The district, however, is being told by its independent financial consultant that building a new Bells Elementary right now can only happen if the board raises taxes from the current 46 mills to at least 54 mills. One mill equates to roughly $4 on a $100,000 house in Colleton County. In response, Foster has presented the board with a less expensive version of a new school. This version carries a price tag of about $6 million, and does not include playground equipment or new cafeteria equipment. According to Foster, the district can provide the necessary cafeteria upgrades from its other recently-closed schools, such as Ruffin or Forest Circle Middle Schools. The cheaper plan also includes the district doing its own landscaping of the new school, he said. “It’s not the Cadillac version,” he told the board.

Foster says the district has not requested cost estimates on refurbishing Bells Elementary. “At this time, the district does not have a contract with any architect or contractor for the Bells project,” said Foster. “All estimates that have been provided to the board for the Bells Elementary project have been conducted internally by district staff. Based on the extensive work needed to renovate Bells Elementary to bring the building to current code, the district team does not feel qualified to provide an estimate without the assistance of professional services,” he said.

The funds spent on miscellaneous services and district conferences and travel in the last three years could have gone toward a Bells Elementary project fund dating back from 2011. Combine this approximate $450,000 spent in the last three years with monies recently spent on an HP contract ($65,000), an unknown amount of money “borrowed” from the district by employees who have not yet returned those funds, the potential sale of unused property in the district (the old Bulldog Stadium, the former Ruffin Middle School, and Campus A of the former middle school), and the amount needed to build a new Bells or refurbish the school could be significantly lowered.

Heather Walters (183 Posts)