03/17/04 — Commissioners discuss school needs

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Commissioners discuss school needs

By Matt Shaw
Published in News on March 17, 2004 2:07 PM

Wayne County officials expect the school board to deliver an updated list of construction needs by the end of March, with a total that could be as high as $100 million.

The county commissioners want to meet soon with the school board to begin planning for a bond referendum or other financing to pay for the projects.

"We need to get together as soon as feasibly possible," Commissioner Efton Sager said Tuesday. "There's a lot of misunderstanding out there."

Several commissioners are angry that they are being blamed for holding up the school construction process. At recent rallies, some school board members have said that the commissioners received the projects list more than a year ago and had not done anything with it.

"That's simply not true," commissioners Chairman Ken Gerrard said.

The Board of Education presented a $40 million building program last May, but after the commissioners began to discuss it in the fall, the school board started considering other projects, such as a new Grantham high school, Gerrard said.

The new projects would clearly cost more than the school system was requesting, he said. "Don't tell me that it's $42 million and then come back and tell me later it's $58 million. Then, we've messed up and not financed as much as we need, and people are saying that we wouldn't give them what they wanted."

County Manager Lee Smith has been meeting with school officials and expects a revised list within two weeks, he told the commissioners.

The new list will probably include new high schools in Mount Olive and Grantham. Each high school would add about $25 million to the package's cost, he said.

Commissioner Arnold Flowers said that the county was willing to "build schools at every crossroads if citizens are willing to pay for it."

But they need to fully understand the cost, he said.

If the county was to borrow $100 million and pay it back with 5 percent interest over 20 years, the annual payment would be more than $8 million, Flowers said. That's equal to about 16 cents on the county's current property tax rate, he said. If the county raised taxes to cover these payments, it would amount to almost a 25 percent hike in the tax rate.

That would also mean the county would pay more than $60 million in interest alone, he said.

Even if the county was to finance only the $40 million the school system originally requested, the annual repayments would probably be more than $3.2 million a year, Flowers said.

Citizens should remember that these buildings would have operating, staffing and maintenance costs, he added.

The Community Advocates of Goldsboro and Wayne County asked the commissioners to do a careful study before agreeing to any bond referendum. The construction of new schools might be at the expense of existing ones, advocate member Neal Stitt said.

The Advocates suggested renovating existing schools as an alternative.

Commissioner John Bell expressed irritation that school board members have practically guaranteed Grantham residents a new high school. He would withhold support for any bond referendum until the school system reaches out to all communities, he said.

"If any area is excluded, then I won't vote for it," Bell said.