By Luke Brantley
MARION COUNTY — The Winfield and Marion County school systems have been selected to receive over $1 million in state grant funding to go toward capital projects.
Winfield received two grants for two projects they applied for, totaling over $1 million. Those funds will be used for new roofs for the high school and the elementary school gymnasium.
The county will be using the funds it received toward an ongoing project at the Hamilton Middle School gym.
State Senator Garlan Gudger explained where the grant money came from, and how schools applied for them.
“We had a surplus in our education trust fund this year, and the legislature decided to do grants through the lieutenant governor’s office for extra money coming back to the school systems,” he said. “We were asked to tell our superintendents about it, so I spoke with all of our superintendents to make sure they put in an application for the projects they had on their agenda, and then we wrote letters of support for every one of them. In the end, it was up to the lieutenant governor to pick the ones he saw fit. The key for me was making sure we got our fair share. My goal was to get as much money as I could back to Marion County and District 4.”
Gudger said he hopes to secure even more funding next year for Marion County schools that didn’t receive any this year.
“Not everyone was able to get funding this year, but be patient with us. It’s hard to ever get the full apple on your first bite, so we’re going to go back next year for another bite and get some funding for the schools that didn’t get funding this year.”
Representative Tracy Estes also stated he wished more funding could have been obtained for more schools, but he had little control over which schools were selected to receive funds.
“To be honest, I have mixed emotions about the recent announcement,” Estes said. “I am grateful for the monies secured for the Marion County and Winfield City school systems through the lieutenant governor’s program.
“Anytime state monies can be sent back to the local level, it allows us to do projects which otherwise could not have been afforded or at least used local funds preventing us from using those monies on other projects.
“I am happy the application to install a new roof on two buildings in Winfield was approved. However, I am disappointed such a limited amount of money was allocated for our schools in the Marion county system.
“If my role in the process had been more in-depth, I can assure everyone the discrepancy between those numbers would not exist.
“Under this new program, legislative members, such as myself, were invited to write letters of support for each school system’s application,” Marion County Superintendent Ann West said. “I did so, and then awaited the decision from the lieutenant governor‘s office just like anyone else in our district.”
Marion County Schools superintendent Ann West said she was also grateful for the grant, but that she needed to clarify a few things regarding the amount the county school system received and what it would be used for.
“The K-12 Capital Grant Program was created during the 2023 Regular Legislative Session (Act 2023-389). The funding for the grant program was from the surplus in the FY23 Education Budget. The funds were to be funneled through Lt. Governor Will Ainsworth to schools and/or school systems. Our 35 State Senators were required to write letters of support for applications in their district. State Representatives were also asked to write letters of support.
“Senator Gudger called me and told me to ask for $300,000. As far as I have been able to determine, no other Superintendent was given an amount to ask for. Most projects were going to require matching funds but, you would not know what your match was until they reviewed the project. Also, the grant request had to meet the guidelines for what the funds could be spent on. With those stipulations in mind, I decided to apply for a grant that would cut the total cost to the Marion County Board of Education for a project that was already started: the Hamilton Middle School Gym. Our match would be the money that we are already spending on the gym project. This frees up $300,000 for the board to spend on other projects such as the $205,000 chiller that has recently been approved for MCHS.
“I am very disappointed that there are those that resent the gym being built at HMS. They are the only school in the county that did not have a free-standing gym with the exception of Hackleburg. That school was built with two gyms being enclosed in the school with noise reduction being built into the design. The gym at HMS is 84 years old. It is in the middle of the building and when students are running in the gym and basketballs are bouncing, it is very noisy in the classrooms. Moving the gym out of the building will create an environment that is much more conducive to learning. The gym being built is a ‘P.E. gym,’ and it is not a competition gym the size of high school gyms.”
West said that she would like to see the funding handled more fairly across the state next time.
“Representative Estes supported what was asked for but had nothing to do with the amount that I was instructed to ask for,” she said. “I have already voiced my support for allocating the funds next year in a fair and equitable manner. There was one school system that received $5 million dollars and some systems that did not receive any of the grant funds. In recent years, the surplus funds from the education budget have been distributed to school systems based on the number of students that they receive state funding for.”
Winfield Schools superintendent Randy Thomley said the grant funds Winfield received would allow them to address some important current needs to pave the way for future capital projects.
“We’re about to enter into a bigger capital project pretty soon, and with that in mind, we needed to assess what capital needs might come up if we go into this big capital project and commit to it,” Thomley said. “We didn’t want to get in a situation where we’re investing in our future, but not taking care of our current needs.
“We assessed that and said that within three-to-five years, the high school will need a new roof and probably the elementary school gym, too. With that in mind, we wrote and petitioned for the grant for the two roofs through the Lt. Governor’s grant. We got letters of support from Gudger and Estes and several local people.
See complete story in the Journal Record.