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Perquimans nixes school request to use lottery funds

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By Peter Williams
The Perquimans Weekly

Monday, August 19, 2019

HERTFORD — A deadlocked Perquimans Board of Commissioners has rejected, at least for now, the county school district’s request to spend $146,000 in lottery funds to fix an accounting error connected to the high school athletic complex project.

The Board of Commissioners voted 3-3 earlier this month on a motion to allow the school district use of lottery funds to replenish capital monies inadvertently spent on the new athletic complex at Perquimans County High School.

State law allots a certain amount of state lottery proceeds to school districts to use for construction projects, but requires county commissioners to approve any expenditure of them first.

Voting for the motion to approve the schools’ request were Commissioners Joe Hoffler, Alan Lennon and Charles Woodard. Voting against it were Chairman Wallace Nelson and Commissioners Kyle Jones and Fondella Leigh. A tie vote means the motion fails.

Perquimans County Schools Superintendent Tanya Turner had previously asked commissioners to approve the school district’s request to use the lottery funds, explaining they were needed to make up for $146,000 spent in error from the district’s regular capital projects account on the athletic complex. The district had a separate account from which the complex’s expenses were supposed to be paid, she said.

Turner said the $146,000 was spent on building a restroom and concessions facility at the complex, which includes a new football field. Turner said the facility has been completed and will be used for the high school’s home football games this season.

Prior to commissioners’ vote on Turner’s request, one of their former colleagues urged them to vote no.

Janice Cole, a former chair of the Board of Commissioners, said the county shouldn’t allow any more lottery funds to be spent on the athletic complex.

“It seems like our general fund will be used to pay for what the school system needs and the lottery fund is to be used for what they want,” Cole said, referring to school officials. “My point is that we, the residents of Perquimans County, seem to be victims of a backdoor plan to have us foot the bill for the major expense of an athletic complex.”

Cole also expressed concern that the school district might continue try and tap the lottery fund for additions at the athletic complex.

“Today it is the concession stand,” she said. “But the field house is not complete, there is no ticket booth, there is no parking lot yet. How long before the school system comes before you to say that it is not safe for people to have to park at the high school and cross the street to get to the field?”

While the field house at the athletic complex is not finished, it is being paid for by a private donor.

Jones, a past critic of increasing local spending on the schools, seemed adamantly opposed to the district’s request.

“Our board should have slammed on the brakes last April when (the schools) requested $56,000 from our fund balance to repair a broken HVAC unit, and then in the very next agenda item, asked for $125,000 from lottery proceeds to put up LED lighting at the athletic complex,” he said.

“The worst part is, this isn’t over,” Jones continued. “They still need to build the track and make other improvements to the land, but there is no clear way at this point for them to pay for it and still meet their other capital needs....”

Jones also called it “unfortunate” that the school district intended to spend $10,000 from its own fund balance for a sign at the athletic complex “that is without question not necessary for playing football.”

Jones said if the county wasn’t already spending $800,000-plus a year on debt service on the high school, “this is an entirely different conversation.”

“We ought to give credit to Ms. Turner for righting a lot of what was wrong on the bookkeeping side, and to (Board of Education Chairwoman) Dr. (Anne) White for coming as close as anyone has to owning up to what I believe the real problem is here: they green-lit the building of this thing before they had a concrete plan as to how to fund it without using all or most of their capital outlay and lottery money,” Jones said.

The school district asked to use lottery money for the athletic project when Matthew Cheeseman was school superintendent. Turner took over as superintendent in May after he left the district for another job.

For her part, Turner said the school district still has to make up the $146,000 taken in error from the construction account, and to do that will require postponing several capital projects.

“We have completed the tuck and point project at the high school, and we have replaced pumps that went down at the high school that provide cooling for the building,” Turner said. “The pumps were not on the original request to the commissioners as this was an unexpected expense at approximately $30,000 and had to be done before students and staff return.”

As for remaining projects, however, the district plans to complete several “top priority items slowly” to ensure it will have funds on hand to cover emergency expenses, she said. There are other capital items the district wanted to spend money on — furniture and vehicles — that “as of now will not be funded this fiscal year,” she said.

With commissioners opposed to using any more lottery funding on the athletic complex, Turner said the district has no plans to make further improvements to the facility right now.

“There will be no more money spent on the complex this year,” she said. “The remainder of the capital outlay funds will be focused on the needs of the schools.”

The district also has no plans to hold any fundraising efforts to help complete projects at the athletic complex, Turner said.

“Currently, we have no plans in the works for re-establishing the fundraising committee but this is certainly an option for discussion and possibility,” she said.

Jones said not granting the district’s request to use the lottery funds won’t hurt the schools.

“The school system will be fine, but just like in any of our personal budgets when we overspend, it has to be followed up with some serious belt-tightening for a while,” Jones said. “Otherwise, we’re in for more of the same, and we’re gonna have to raise property taxes to pay for this mistake.”

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