10/17/05 — Schools not happy with consultant idea

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Schools not happy with consultant idea

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on October 17, 2005 1:51 PM

Some Wayne County Board of Education members aren't too happy about a suggestion the county commissioners might consider hiring a consultant to review the school system's facilities plan -- even before the county has received an official copy.

During a four-hour work session last month, the Board of Education updated its plan, with preliminary totals estimated at $130 million. School officials are putting the finishing touches on the plan so that the school board can vote on it and submit it to the commissioners.

Earlier in the week, County Manager Lee Smith suggested the county might consider having an independent consultant review the proposed school building plan.

That indicates there might be a continuation of the ongoing debate that has surrounded this year's school budget process, school board member Thelma Smith said.

"It looks like it's never-ending," Mrs. Smith said. "It's just a cycle, and it just caught me speechless because we had a session to go and get all of this done."

No matter what is accomplished, the rules keep changing, she said. She called the ongoing debate between the two boards a form of stalling. She added the school board made the initial $130 million estimate at the suggestion of county officials, who asked for the complete picture of the district's facilities needs.

"Instead of saying to go ahead and put down everything you need, if it's another agenda, they need to just sit down with us and say, 'Realistically, this is about what we can offer you. Why don't you prioritize what you need and let's do this thing one step at a time,'" Mrs. Smith said. "It would make a whole lot more sense and would take a lot of guesswork out of it."

Board member Rick Pridgen said he was disappointed when he read Lee Smith's comments, especially since the commissioners had not even seen the building plan. He said he hopes the two boards will sit down together.

"I'd really love the opportunity to discuss with county commissioners before they go spending money for an outside source," he said.

Pridgen said the two groups should first talk about whether new schools would be considered, or from a feasibility standpoint, if increasing the size of existing schools would be a better plan. He said without knowing how much money commissioners might free up for the school system, it has been difficult for the school board to come up with an accurate plan.

"We don't have the exact end figures," he said. "I think when we see that, some of these new schools will be found to be cost-prohibitive."

Board member Pete Gurley said he has maintained from the start that the school board could have taken a more realistic approach if commissioners had given them a ballpark figure as a guide.

"We need a number to work with," he said. "We can go to the number. We presented them with everything we thought they needed. They have refused to give us a number to work with for several years."

Gurley said that if having a consultant review the plan is what ends up having to happen, the board would be willing to work with a consultant.

Board member John P. Grantham disagreed.

"I'm opposed to having a third-party look at the facilities plan," he said. "A third party doesn't really have a feel for the flavor of the community and the history of the community. All that comes into play."

He also recalled a demographic study done in 1993 to determine where schools would be needed.

"We paid $35,000 for an outfit from Greenville" to do the study, he said. "Two years down the road, it was worthless."

The only outside help that might be necessary would be regarding architectural or construction questions, Grantham said. His suggested the board might want to take a more in-depth look at the building plan.

"I think we're a little bit overpriced now as far as what the facilities are going to cost," he said.

Grantham said he would also like to do further study on the use of mobile classrooms. As long as they are still viable, he said, trailers should be seen as an option to reduce overcrowding.

"I don't think we can afford to eliminate mobile classrooms," he said.

Board Chairman Lehman Smith said he would have no problem with an independent consultant coming in to look at large building projects further down the road, but doesn't want to see the most pressing needs delayed.

He said factoring in time for the consultant to do a study, as well as educating the public about the proposed plan, would only delay the actual building projects.

"I really think it's time to get on with the program," he said. "I don't believe the facilities can wait two years."

He said if the consultant's role was to find funding sources for the projects, that would be fine. But the school board has already had two independent studies done in recent years, and the list of needs is only growing longer, he said.

"We want to try to provide the facilities that we have needed so bad for four or five years," Lehman Smith said.

Board members George Moye and Shirley Sims chose not to comment.

Superintendent Dr. Steven Taylor, said the notion of soliciting an independent consultant did not come as a surprise.

"This is not anything new," he said. "This was actually introduced at our last joint meeting with commissioners."

At that time, he said, a group was contacted but was found to have little experience in dealing with school systems. Taylor said that while he had not received specific recommendations from the commissioners, it is something the school board would consider.

"That's their prerogative (to suggest) but our board would have to see what they prepared and the impact of it," he said. "The board is certainly open to listening to any proposal to get the ball rolling. If the county commissioners want a third party, until we get some details, it would be immature to say yea or nay. I'd like to know exactly what it entails."

Taylor said the school system's first priority is to finish up the plan so that it can be voted on and presented to the commissioners. He said the plan might even be ready by the next school board meeting, which is scheduled for Nov. 7.