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Stimulus funds eyed for building work

The Brookhaven School District Board of Trustees has approved an application to borrow money for infrastructure improvement, but administrators stress that no final decision to take on a loan has been made.

     “Approving this application does not commit us to borrow those funds,” Director of Finance Susan Quin said to board members Tuesday night.

     Quin said the purpose of the application is to identify available funding sources as the board seeks to improve the district’s infrastructure. Specifically, any money borrowed would go toward the replacement or repair of air-conditioning systems and other mechanical issues.

     “We know that we do have some issues,” Quin said of the district’s buildings.

     The application would seek money made available by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and administered by the Mississippi Department of Education. Interest rates for the money are currently very low, with a 1 percent rate possible, Quin said.

     Board member Stan Patrick asked how quickly the district would be required to pay back the money. Quin told him different options existed and a definitive answer was not available.

     The stimulus act made the money available through the Qualified School Construction Bonds program. The money is intended specifically for repair of school facilities.

     However, despite coming through a “bond” program, the school district itself would not engage in a bond issue. It would only borrow a certain amount of money and then repay it at a low interest rate.

     School leaders promised caution as they move forward.

     “I’m not a big proponent of borrowing money if I don’t have to,” Quin said.

     The move to address air conditioning and other mechanical problems follows the district’s decision to allocate $1.5 million for roof replacement across the district. The need to repair and replace the district’s aging infrastructure was identified by a consultant hired to evaluate the district’s facilities.

     Board members also approved an updated cellphone policy that allows the possession of phones on school grounds by students, but continues to ban student use of cell phones on school grounds.

     The prior policy banned even the possession of phones by students.

     Some board members expressed reservations about the policy as written.

     “My only problem is, what constitutes use?” board member Willie Harrison asked. “What if you’re playing with them in your pocket?”

     Superintendent Dr. Lisa Karmacharya said the policy could be revised to be more specific, but alternatively, she suggested borderline cases remain at the discretion of principals.

     Patrick said some exception might need to be written into the policy. As written, the policy bans “any use” of a cellphone by a student.

     “I just don’t want it to be where use of the phone nails you,” Patrick said. “In 99.99 percent of the time it should. But we need an out.”

     The disciplinary structure in place currently allows principals some discretion, Karmacharya said. Board attorney Bob Allen said he didn’t see a need to further revise the policy unless problems arise.

     The board went on to unanimously approve the new policy.

     Tuesday night marked the first meeting of newly elected board member Erin Williamson Smith, and the rotation of Karen Braden into the role of board president.