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County, school system sever ties on aquatic center

By Greg Gelpi

School board members were vocal in saying "no" to a county request for about $900,000 for their joint venture to build an aquatic center.

An emergency measure was brought to the Clayton County Board of Education Wednesday, but just as abruptly as it was introduced, it was turned down.

The Clayton County Board of Commissioners asked the school board to approve an additional $900,000 to build the aquatic center.

School board members asked school system Chief Financial Officer Lee Davis if he could find $900,000 in the budget.

"That's a good question," Davis said. "I wish I had a good answer."

He said he would find the money if directed to, but it wouldn't be easy.

County Commission Chairman Crandle Bray said the county now considers it a done deal and it will scale back its proposal and move forward.

"The school system has wasted four years of our time and it is time for us to go on now," Bray said. "They are going to have to pay about $500,000 in costs associated with what we have done so far."

That includes architectural fees and engineering fees.

The county will build a 25-meter pool in a smaller facility on the site already set aside.

"We won't need as big a facility because we were building it for the school use," Bray said.

When it is complete it will not be available for school system use, he said.

The school system and county entered into an agreement to build the center a few years ago, but since then the school system has been asked twice to invest more money into the project.

The total cost of the aquatic center has risen to more than $9.5 million. The school system's share of the project jumped from $3.9 million to $4.7 million because of the rising cost of steel, school board attorney Gary Sams said, adding that it was his understanding that the price of steel would jump again next week, forcing the school board to act immediately.

"Steel has been going up on almost a daily basis," Clayton County staff attorney Don Comer said. "It's anticipated to go up again next week."

Comer said the county has been trying to get the school board to commit so that the project could move forward and prices could be locked in.

"We couldn't get a commitment from the current school board," he said.

The school board agreed last month to extend a contract to the county that capped its share of the project at $3.9 million, but the county has yet to accept the contract.

Brian Miller, the school system's director of facility auxiliary services, purchasing and risk management, is researching the cost of building an aquatic center separate from the county.

School Superintendent Barbara Pulliam cautioned, though, that the school system would incur all of the costs of upkeep and staffing such a project.

"In 20 years how much indebtedness would be projected?" she asked.

Miller added that the cost of utilities for such a facility would be "astronomical."

"I do feel the pressure of rushing to a response, and I know that's not a good way to make a decision," Pulliam said.

She reminded board members that they made a promise to residents of the county when the board asked them to approve the special purpose local option sales tax.

The board said that part of the funds would be used to build an aquatic center, but Sams said there is no obligation if the system doesn't have the money to do so.

"I would rather put that $1 million in a new school," Board Chairwoman Nedra Ware said.

Board member Ericka Davis said this is the first she has learned of rising building costs, although the project has been discussed for years.

"It's not 9 cents," Davis said. "It's not $9. It's not even $9,000. We promised people schools. Kids can't swim and read books. I think it's blackmail, and it's wrong. We would be fiscally irresponsible to vote for this."

Clayton County schools currently use the city of Forest Park's recreation pool, but Miller said that the school system is quickly outgrowing that facility due to the popularity of swimming in the county.