08/31/06 — Commissioners meet to talk schools

View Archive

Commissioners meet to talk schools

By Andrew Bell
Published in News on August 31, 2006 1:45 PM

RALEIGH -- Local government leaders from across the state met in Raleigh Wednesday to discuss a problem that is common to almost every county -- school building needs.

A forum sponsored by the state Association of County Commissioners was held at the Exploris Museum.

Tony Gurley, the chairman of the Wake County Board of Commissioners, said education is the heart of the economic engine that drives the state. But it takes economic tools to provide that education to children, he added.

Ben Matthews, the director of school support services for the state Department of Public Instruction, said county school districts will need an estimated $9.7 billion over the next five years for school renovations, furniture and new buildings.

Each year that passes pushes the figure higher, he said.

"We have some absolutely wonderful schools in this state. We also have some that they should pull up a bulldozer on the side of it and just start over," Matthews said.

State officials said that since 2000, the rate of enrollment in the state's high schools has increased three times faster than in elementary and middle schools. But experts expect the trend to change in the next five years, according to a survey.

Matthews said the growth in high schools could be attributed to economic development and migration patterns.

Elementary enrollment in the next five years is expected to grow twice as much as middle schools and eight times larger than high schools, according to the state survey.

Some counties, such as Henderson, have already experienced a massive amount of growth within elementary schools. Henderson County Assistant Manager Justin Hembree said if the growth trends continue in his county, it will need to build a new elementary school every two years.

Wake County has also experienced exponential growth. The county's population is expected to double in the next 25 years. The growth will directly affect the way counties provide services to the public, including schools' needs, Gurley said.

Since space is running out in classrooms for students across the state, more schools have built mobile units and temporary classrooms for students.

This year, according to the facility needs survey, North Carolina has more than 7,000 mobile units and temporary classrooms, which act as classrooms for about 178,000 students.

"We have to provide equal education. But there is nothing equal about this. We're not treating them equal with the rooms we put them in," Matthews said.

Frank Holding, a representative from the Wake County Blue Ribbon Committee on the Future of Wake County, who helped develop a $970 million bond referendum that will be on Wake's November ballot, said there is no easy way to finance schools' needs.

Many school districts and boards of commissioners are looking for the money to build new facilities for their students. Some hope that the education lottery will be answer, but Matthews said counties shouldn't rely on those funds.

Lottery proceeds will become available in October after counties submit applications to receive their portion, Matthews said. Although that money can't be used to buy technology for classrooms, he added that counties may find it beneficial to use it to pay off any debt incurred after Jan. 1, 2003.

Wayne County Schools Superintendent Dr. Steve Taylor and County Manager Lee Smith attended the session. They said they are aware that Wayne voters could not support a bond referendum.

The Wayne County Board of Education has said the county has $90 million in school construction needs.

Smith noted that that would amount to 15 cents on the county property tax rate.

Although finding the money to build a school is difficult for local governments, the University of North Carolina's Center for Urban and Regional Studies chairman David Salvesen said the actual construction of a school carries its own problems, such as zoning, land costs and classroom size. Sprunt Hill, assistant superintendent for auxiliary services for the Wayne County Schools, said that would be difficult for Wayne.

"You can change your class sizes with a larger classroom, but you can't do it with smaller classrooms," Hill said.

Some schools have also chosen to use alternative facilities as schools. In Wake County, 9th-grade students are being educated in a former grocery store.

Wayne County residents can discuss these issues involving education and facilities at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 11 at Spring Creek High School. The forum is the second of six in which the public can address representatives of the Board of Education and Board of Commissioners with their concerns about nearby schools and the education of their children.