The Rome City Commission voted to back just over $103 million in bonds to construct a new Rome Middle School after a two hour long debate Monday.
Commissioners voted unanimously to fund the local portion of the project and aggressively pay down interest on the bonds, to keep the interest accrued on the project to a minimum.
Despite several commissioners coming into the debate with reservations, there appeared to be a consensus that the school system needs a new middle school facility. Commissioners had toured the current facility and noted its deficiencies and needs. However, the sticking point in the pre-meeting debate appeared to be the cost of the project, driven up by skyrocketing construction prices.
Another issue brought up during the debate is whether or not the taxpayers would be stuck with a tax increase if future education SPLOST packages fail.
“The issue we’re in right now is because we’re growing,” said Commissioner Elaina Beeman, a former Rome Board of Education member.
The total estimated price of a new school on Three Rivers Drive, across Veterans Memorial Highway from the existing one, is $119 million. There would be $16 million coming from state capital outlay funds on top of a voter-approved education special purpose local option sales tax that will fund $54 million of the facility over time. The city is backing bonds for just over $103 million in the project.
That facility will house sixth through eighth grades, moving sixth graders out of the elementary school buildings to alleviate overcrowding. If that were to happen today, using current enrollment numbers, that would raise the RMS enrollment to 1,443 students.
The plan is for a school that could be upsized to house 2,000 students. The new school would also be purpose-built to allow expansion for another 500 students.
A rough breakdown of the total cost of building a new middle school, provided by the school system is $63 million for new school construction, $10 million for a C wing storm shelter, $4 million for an auditorium and $25 million for an athletics wing — for a total of roughly $102 million. That athletic wing also includes an art room, band room and areas for other extracurricular activities.
Additional parts of the build include synthetic turf baseball and football fields alongside concession stands and bathroom facilities. Those facilities would include a 1,000 seat home grandstand and 500 seat visitor bleachers for the football field, and baseball bleachers with seats for 100 home and 50 visitors.
Including furniture and fees, it brought the total to roughly $125 million. Several items were since taken out of that figure, including a swim center, to get to approximately $119 million.
Commissioners also asked about paring down the project further or the potential of removing some of those athletics facilities as a cost savings measure. Superintendent Eric Holland, however, said it must serve its purpose.
“You have to be real careful when we start to take things out,” Holland said.
He talked about the sweat equity of parents with children in athletics programs and show choir programs who worked to get the education SPLOST passed.
“Say you remove the baseball field, what do you say to those baseball parents who have to go practice at Lakepoint when we get rained out here,” Holland said.
To clear up some confusion caused by the marketing of the middle school education SPLOST project, City Manager Sammy Rich said the idea was never for the project to cost just $54 million. That was the amount allocated to start the project in the already passed education SPLOST package.
The cost of the building, with the city backing approximately $103 million in bonds, under the bond terms approved Monday, would total approximately $145 million to $147 million. The school system’s plan to pay for the middle school relies on the passage of potentially three more education SPLOST measuresl.
However, if future education SPLOST referendums don’t pass, it could lead to a property tax increase for city residents of 5 to 6 mills.
“That hurts a community systemically if we do that,” Commissioner Craig McDaniel said.
Commissioner Mark Cochran said he did research that shows only a very few education SPLOST proposals have failed in Georgia.
With any project of this size, there’s good and bad news.
The bad news is that school construction costs have increased 27% over the past two years, said Bill Camp with Raymond James, a bond advisor representing the City of Rome.
But, overall, he said the financial picture for the project looks good. He pointed to the fact that sales tax collections have increased each year over the past five years. Take that on top of other factors, like bond interest rates dropping, and the financial outlook for the project looks positive, he said.
“You’re not the only school system that has had to look at a multi-SPLOST repayment program,” Camp said, producing a list of over 100 school systems in the state who use the method to pay for facilities.