12/23/05 — Consultant will examine facilities plan, budget limits

View Archive

Consultant will examine facilities plan, budget limits

By News-Argus Staff
Published in News on December 23, 2005 1:49 PM

Consultants will take a look at Wayne County's school building needs and the county's ability to fund the projects after the county commissioners approved a contract with the firm this week, a first step in the process of developing a workable facilities plan for the district.

After that, county and school officials say, it will be time to figure out how to cover the costs.

The Evergreen Solutions proposal to examine both sides of the facilities question recently stalled when members of the Wayne County Board of Education balked over changes members said the commissioners had made to the original proposal.

Following a joint meeting of the two boards on Nov. 30, both groups had tentatively agreed to enter into the contract. When commissioners met on Dec. 6, Commissioner Jack Best suggested several stipulations to the proposal, which school board members said changed the original intent.

At the Dec. 12 Board of Education meeting, the school board withheld its vote in favor of the proposal, pending conditions that some changes be made by commissioners.

At Tuesday's commissioners' meeting, the board approved the Evergreen Solutions contract as originally submitted.

Many of the county commissioners would agree that both parties "need to turn the corner on the facilities plan," Commissioner J.D. Evans said. However, funding the project could prove difficult.

Commissioner Atlas Price said there is a solution, if the school board and the public are willing to accept it.

"We would like the school board to put a plan to the public - like a bond issue," Price said. "I believe that's the only way we can do it."

Price said the county commissioners cannot afford to fund the proposed $130 million plan. Since the issue directly involves the public, he said they should have a voice in the decision.

"I wouldn't want to put an issue on the public without their input," Price said.

In the meantime, Price said both sides must be willing to compromise for the future of Wayne County students.

"We need to be patient and understanding with each other in order to work together and resolve this issue. The study could be the big answer to the problem. It provides an unbiased look at what we need and what we can afford. It's a real asset to what direction we go in," Price said. "There needs to be some reasonable compromise to this thing. I believe the study is it."

When the notion of a possible bond referendum was mentioned to school board members, response was favorable.

Chairman John Grantham said he thinks asking taxpayers to support the district's building needs would be a great idea.

"It's obviously going to take more money than they're going to be able to budget for what we want to do," he said. "Citizens are ultimately going to be the ones paying for it," making a bond referendum a logical option.

Vice chairman Shirley Sims said the school board is willing to support commissioners, realizing they hold the purse strings.

"I think that we have done the very best that we could to give them a true picture of our anticipated needs for the next 10 years," she said. "It's in their hands now, and we're going to let them make the decision as to funding."

The only way the school system is likely to get significant money for construction projects at this point would be through a bond referendum, said board member George Moye. Based on the information he has heard to that end, he said he would be supportive.

"The school board is charged with determining the needs of our schools; the commissioners are charged with funding," he said. "If they choose to go the way of a bond referendum, certainly our schools have major needs that need to be met."

The bottom line is to get started as soon as possible, Moye said, citing two reasons for his position.

"The needs are there and have been there for years and years, and they keep getting worse as far as space limitation and overcrowding. (Secondly), costs keep escalating and are not coming down," he said. Moye said that the school system could have saved millions of dollars in construction costs if it had been given the go-ahead and had already started projects.

Board member Lehman Smith said that while a bond referendum is a viable solution, he would suggest privatization as a way to look at some of the more pressing needs. It would be a similar process of borrowing money, he said, but could get the ball rolling sooner.

"It won't affect the cost but will fix us while we're waiting for the bond referendum," he said.

Smith expressed concern about burgeoning schools in the northern end of the county, where there have been marked population shifts to surrounding communities.

"Places like Northwest Elementary that we had so much crowding last year, we need to look at what we can do with that," he said, adding that similar problems are occurring at Norwayne Middle, Eastern Wayne Middle, and Charles B. Aycock High schools.

"We have got trouble spots all over the county that are catching up with us. I'm afraid if we don't do something soon, in a couple of years, we'll have even more to catch up with us."