Capital campaign options studied
by Paige Rentz
The Jacksonville Educational Trust is testing the waters for a major undertaking.

The trust — which supports the city’s school system — has hired Auburn-based J.F. Smith Group to conduct a study that will determine the feasibility of raising money in a capital campaign. While the group has worked with local institutions such as Jacksonville State University and Faith Christian School in Anniston, such an initiative is unusual for a public school system, according to Superintendent Jon Paul Campbell.

“As we’ve seen more and more funding cuts, systems that have these foundations like JET are exploring different areas to be able to fund different projects,” he said.

“Where private schools and universities have been doing it for years, it’s still relatively new for public school systems to be participating in this type of fundraising activity.”

Trust chairman K.L. Brown said there are a number of things the trust would like to help with, including pressing capital projects such as building a new elementary school and the less-pressing possibility of a new middle school.

“I think there’s enough people who realize the needs. There’s no question about the need for a new elementary school,” he said, noting the outdated technology infrastructure and pod structures dotting the campus that make security more difficult.

How to fund and build a new elementary school has been a big source of debate in the community, and the school system has been on hold as it awaits word on funding from the city government. In 2011, the City Council approved a new penny sales tax to help fund a new public safety complex, with any leftover money to be used to help support education.

The City Council voted Dec. 20 to issue $12.75 million in bonds to fund the safety complex, but since the project has not yet been awarded to a contractor, the city has no final cost estimate for the new building.

Meanwhile, early estimates by architects have placed the cost of building a new elementary school at about $12 million. A middle school would cost an additional $7.4 million to build.

The City Council voted recently to allocate $4,000 to the city schools to help hire someone part-time to make phone calls for the survey.

“I think it’s just a gesture on their part to show they want to try to help,” Mayor Johnny Smith said of the council’s vote.

Besides capital work, the trust is looking to provide support for additional programming at the city’s schools.

“A lot of art and foreign language and things have been dropped because of funding,” Brown said. “A lot of us think that’s real important for the schools to have that.”

Campbell said members of the community will be asked about issues such as where they see the strengths of the school system, areas they feel could be improved, and which projects they feel are important.

Getting that kind of input on how residents perceive the school system will be valuable, Campbell said. “That will give us some good information back on how we tell our story better, how we communicate, or maybe areas we could improve that we’re not aware of,” he said.

Once the process is complete, Brown said, representatives from the trust will sit down with city and school officials and examine the results of the feasibility study and prioritize what projects to undertake if and when the trust begins raising funds. Brown estimates the study will be complete sometime toward the end of March.

“I think we’ve reached a point where I believe there’s enough support that we can do better, and I think we will do better,” Brown said. “Am I saying we can raise enough money to build a new elementary school? No, but the feasibility study will show what the reality is we can raise.”

Brown said the trust was set up more than a decade ago when Alabama Power was matching money raised to help school systems. “We needed to set up something so we could get those matching funds,” he said. When Alabama Power’s initiative ended, the trust lay dormant, he said.

“It’s kind of time to revitalize it and let people know it’s here, why we exist,” he said. “I think by doing this capital funds campaign it will put our name in the forefront.”
© 2013