In a deal between School Board Chairman Robina Bouffault and the Clarke County Farm Bureau the fate of whether or not to site the Vocational Agriculture Center at the new high school location may be decided Tuesday night.
According to documents obtained by the Clarke Daily News, Bouffault and the Farm Bureau appear to have agreed to segment the vocational and agriculture program between the existing high school campus and the new campus until the Farm Bureau can raise funds for a new Vo-Ag/Tech Center that would be located on the north side of Mosby Avenue at the new high school site.
The decision to separate the program between the two campuses could mean that approximately 250 students will have to be transported by buses to the old high school campus in order to complete the “hands-on” portion of their courses even though classroom instruction is performed in the new facility.
In spite of the lower student populations, the number of students registering for Vocational -Technology classes has increased by nearly 20% this year.
In a 7:15 a.m. meeting last Wednesday Bouffault met with the Clarke County Farm Bureau board to discuss the funding and location of a Vocational Agriculture Technology Center.
According to school board documents, Bouffault presented the Farm Bureau with a $2.5M cost estimate for the new facility. In the documents Bouffault said that she “compiled the estimate based upon communications with our architects CRA, who provided the numbers both for the building and other construction costs, and the Agency Fees from our Town and County fee schedules.”
It is not clear whether any other school board members or school staff participated in the cost estimate formulation that Bouffault presented to the Farm Bureau. Details of the cost estimate have not been disclosed to the public.
According to Bouffault, the Farm Bureau is behind a plan to reject a “simple greenhouse” at the new school site in favor of a more elaborate Vocational Agriculture Technology Center to be built sometime in the future provided that the Farm Bureau can raise private funds to pay for the project.
“The general consensus of the majority of the Farm Bureau board was to back the full Vo-Ag/Tech center located on NoMo [north of Mosby Boulevard] in preference to a simple greenhouse, and there was discussion of them organizing fund-raisers to help pay for it, i.e. in effect a complete, comprehensive high school on the new site, including Vocational courses. They felt that this complete vocational center should be given their full backing, and that they should “put our money where our mouth is” and organize some serious funding-raising.”
Bouffault’s $2,456,500 facility includes a full 15,000 square foot Vocational Agriculture Technology Center and a 5,000 square foot greenhouse located north of the to-be-built extension of Mosby Boulevard.
The discussions between Bouffault and the Farm Bureau have raised community concern both about the decision and about the process that excluded so many concerned parties including parents, school staff, school board members and students.
“The plan that our school board chairman has decided on now is to leave these all important workshops and the greenhouse at the old high school and bus children there for classes, which is definitely not in the best interest of the students” said Hope Cather, President of the Clarke County 4-H Leaders in a widely circulated electronic mail message. “While speaking with the local farm bureau group, she indicated that in 2014 someone could build a 2.5 million dollar Ag facility on the north side of Mosby Blvd. for which funding sources are up in the air. And, if funding could not be obtained, then a greenhouse could be put at the high school. For the ease of financing, the students, transportation, the teachers, and the contractors; why wouldn’t we just build a nice greenhouse and use part of the 6,000 square foot Tech area already planned for “Tech” education now?”
The decision to defer the Vocational Agriculture Technology Center to a Farm Bureau private funding model also raises questions about benefits and uncertainties.
Although Clarke County currently has a $7M education budget surplus due to lower-than-expected school construction bids, some members of the community believe that the money should be held in reserve against future economic uncertainties. Raising private funds would offset such concerns but at the same time raise separate questions about whether the facility would ever actually be built and about how such a public-private funding relationship would be administered and implemented by the Clarke County Public School system.
Concerns have also been raised for students currently in the Vocational Agriculture Technology program who will experience the split-campus model and the impact that bussing may have on their safety and learning experience.
“There are school board members and supervisors willing to support building our Agriculture and Horticulture Departments now” said Cather. “We just need to show our support of the decision being made that way.”
As of Sunday morning the School Board agenda published on the CCPS website for the 7:00pm CCHS Library meeting does not contain a specific reference to the Vocational Agriculture topic. The School Board will also hold a Construction Committee meeting, also in the Library, at 5:30pm. The agenda for the Construction Committee meeting was not available on the CCPS website as of Sunday morning.
Although whether the split-campus plan will be implemented or not remains to be decided, Bouffault seems confident that her view will prevail. In the school board documents she says “The new cost estimate will be provided to Tom Judge, to be included in the next Finance Committee meeting discussions concerning our 10-year capital plan, prior to presentation to the board on Sept. 7th”