BAKER — Questions arose at Tuesday's Baker School Board meeting regarding a consultant hired to assist with disaster recovery, even as the board approved acceptance of a long-awaited loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to rebuild Baker High School, which was damaged in the historic 2016 flooding.

Renovation and construction of the new Baker High should begin by the end of the fiscal year, July 2020, schools superintendent Herman Brister said.

The school district applied for the loan in March, stating at that time it was seeking $12.5 million to supplement the $5 million Federal Emergency Management Agency was expected to provide to rebuild Baker High. FEMA also approved $1.2 million for replacing the contents of the school, including furniture and supplies.

Baker High was rendered unusable by the 2016 flooding. Since then, the high school students have been attending classes at Baker Middle. Middle school students occupy Bakerfield Elementary’s campus and Bakerfield and Baker Heights share the Baker Heights campus.

For accounting purposes, USDA approved two loans, one for $7 million and another for $7.6 million. Splitting the loan into two parts allows the school district to pay off one loan whenever possible to reduce its indebtedness, Corey Young, of USDA, explained to the board.

Both loans have an interest rate of 3.5% and must be paid off within 40 years.

The money must be used to renovate the high school, which is more than 50 years old and was built to accommodate 1,500 students.

Baker High has 563 students, according to the USDA letter.

After renovation, including tearing down some of the buildings on its campus, the new Baker High will have capacity for 675 students.

The renovation plan also calls for accessibility updates to Baker High’s McConnell Auditorium, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Following the board’s unanimous vote to accept the loan, board member Elaine Davis took issue with the particulars of a contract with the Coleman Consulting Group that the board voted to authorize in July.

During that meeting, the board voted 3-2, with Davis and Joyce Burges casting the dissenting votes, to end its contract with Tillage Construction Group.

Tillage had been assisting the school district with disaster recovery, grants management, and construction planning for the rebuilding of Baker High.

Following the vote to end Tillage’s contract, the board voted 4-1 to negotiate a contract with The Coleman Consulting Group to be FEMA Recovery/Loss Consultant for the district.

Davis cast the lone dissenting vote.

Davis argued Tuesday that the contract Brister and School Board President Shona Boxie signed with Coleman exceeded the scope of what the board approved.

“This contract is a funding contract, not a disaster contract,” Davis said. “It also includes all of the school sites. If the scope of the work needed to be changed, this should have been brought back to the board. This contract is illegal. It’s not what we voted on.”

When asked, school district attorney Winston DeCuir said, “It’s legal until someone declares it illegal.”

The board authorized the board president and the superintendent to enter into negotiation and the signed contract reflects that negotiation, DeCuir added.

Brister confirmed Tuesday that the district has no plans to enter into a construction management contract with another company, work which is not included in the contract with Coleman Consulting, but was part of Tillage’s contract.

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