10/01/06 — School officials say county has to provide facilities

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School officials say county has to provide facilities

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on October 1, 2006 2:07 AM

No matter how the county commissioners might feel about the quality of Wayne County's schools, their obligation to provide adequate facilities is the only issue that should be on the table right now, Wayne County Public Schools officials say.

Superintendent Dr. Steve Taylor, school board chairman John Grantham and Sprunt Hill, assistant superintendent for auxiliary services, sat down with the News-Argus recently to discuss some of the issues surrounding the effort to improve school facilities in the county.

Over the past six years, five construction plans have been submitted to county commissioners by the school board, they said. And each time, the plans remained dormant.

In the last year, the commission proposed hiring Evergreen Solutions, a consulting firm that studies school systems and determines needs and problem areas, to study the local school system. District officials agreed to the study and are now wondering why progress continues to be stalled.

"The Evergreen report looked at both financial and facilities," Dr. Taylor said. "We have honestly, earnestly tried to follow that process as best we can."

On the financial side, he said, Evergreen's report was very complimentary. Recommenda-tions for improvements were made, and Taylor said the schools plan to work on each of them.

"Both (school and commissioning) boards have their responsibilities and roles. It's the school board's business to run the schools. It's the county commissioners' business to provide the money to run the schools," he said. "We're accountable to everybody, but I think there's a dividing line of what the responsibilities are between the Board of Education and the county commissioners."

Taylor said he has no problem being accountable and answering any questions raised by the commission. The discrepancy lies in determining where each board's responsibility lies when it comes to student performance and test scores.

"I don't think the county commissioners can set a line and say, 'You'll be held to this line or the money for facilities will not be forthcoming,'" he said. "If all 31 schools were low-performing, the county commissioners would still have statutory responsibility to provide facilities for our schools."

Compared with the state, Wayne County schools are faring well, he said. Grantham said it would be helpful if officials did their homework and acquired the right information before publicly criticizing the school system.

"The average citizen is not really expected to know every detail about the performance and statistics and financial standards. I think it would behoove the elected officials to have accurate information before they're going to speak in public -- not taking the time to get involved in the issues is not productive," he said.

Misinformation is too rampant, Grantham and Taylor said. Whether during community forums or in other arenas, statistics have been bandied about from a variety of sources regarding school capacity to graduation rates.

For example, Taylor said, the calculation to determine graduation rates is changing this year. Previously, the percentage was determined by the number of seniors who complete the year and received a diploma. This year, that statistic will be calibrated to include students who start at ninth grade and drop out for any reason before the completion of their senior year.

Therefore, he said, the graduation rate, like in other districts across the state, is expected to go down. But that is because of the calculation format imposed by the state, the same governing body that hands down the capacity standard.

To refer to the old graduation rate using the new formula is misleading, he added.

The school system has received a lot of criticism of late, specifically targeting the need to hire better teachers. But Grantham, who represents the rural Grantham area, said that doesn't hold true for him.

"I don't hear that in the county. I don't hear that we have got a lousy school system. ... If it was a widespread issue in the county, it would be more credible," he said. "The main criticism that I hear in the county is the facilities, not the teachers or the grades."

What criticism they do get, however, is not necessarily accurate, Grantham said. At a recent meeting, he said someone commented that the school system had 54 percent of its teachers who were highly qualified. Last year, that number was 92.5 percent, he said.

"Even with the lateral entry," Taylor added. "Under No Child Left Behind they are considered highly qualified. As of Aug. 24, 93.6 percent were highly qualified in the central attendance area. There's not a school under 90."

Despite a teacher shortage, Taylor said this has been his best school year since becoming superintendent six years ago. As far as vacancies at the outset, the district was only down eight teachers, significantly lower than some of the surrounding areas, he said.

"We have very good teachers in this district and a very high number of nationally board certified, so I don't think you can go anywhere to find any more highly qualified teachers," he said.

Grantham said he has a problem with the mixed messages heard and sent by the commission.

"We live in the same county as the commissioners do. We're not hearing some of what the commissioners are saying," he said. "That's why we want to go for a bond issue, to see what the people want. If they don't want better school (facilities), it's not our prerogative to force it on them."

"The academic standards of our schools has nothing to do with facilities. It's still our responsibility to provide facilities for all those students," Taylor said. "We know through the research that good facilities, nice facilities, clean facilities can improve student achievement."

Most people also realize the importance of having standards for the schools where they send their children, Grantham said. He said he is confident that the public knows what needs to be done at their schools.

"They know how long the teachers have to wait to eat lunch, problems with traffic and congestion in the mornings," he said. "I think the people are pretty aware of what they need."

The Board of Education has worked diligently with the superintendent to get facilities improvements accomplished in the county, Hill said, while all the while watching prices for construction projects escalate.

"It represents about a 30 to 40 percent increase on construction since we have started working on this" facilities plan process, he said. "So when you hear this number ($90 million), we did not start this year saying we need this money. We started back seven years ago when we gave a plan of $38 million. This is somewhat close to that plan. That's how much it has gone up."

The board has received a lot of flak about redistricting as a means to evenly distribute the student population around the county. Grantham said the buzz word he has heard often is "You don't control where people live, but you do control where people go to school."

He said he is hesitant to jump on that bandwagon, which seems contradictory to the advantages of community schools.

"Do you build roads where nobody's going to go? Do you build service stations in the woods? You build schools where there are people," he said.

Before moving forward, the school system is waiting on the outcome of a series of public forums being held at high schools around the county. As part of Evergreen's study, the community input is vital. So far, four of the six meetings have been held.

Once the community meetings wrap up, Taylor said the three focus committees will be charged with visiting the schools and doing their own research. Results will be given to the Master Facilities Plan team, which includes representatives from the school board and commission. Recommendations will then be made and the school board will decide if the $90 million proposed plan stays as is or gets revamped.

"That's why we're out to hear what people say," Taylor said.

But the matter of how construction projects will be funded once they are determined remains to be seen. The school board has lobbied for a bond issue, but says it is willing to consider other avenues.

The final decision on funding comes from the taxing authorities, the county commission, Taylor said. If that means a tax increase, he suggested officials announce how that would translate for the average taxpayer.

"I think it needs to be clarified. Just sort of give a scenario, then people can calculate in their head what it would cost," he said, adding the hope that a bond issue would not put too much of a burden on taxpayers.

If the commission does not introduce a bond issue, Taylor said, the school system will have to decide its next move.

"If we get to the point and it's not endorsed, the Board of Education has to decide what to do," he said. "The board can only do so much in this process. We'll follow Evergreen as they prescribed it."

Taylor speculated that if the public's opinion is sought regarding a bond, there could be some pressure applied to the commission to take action.

"They'll need to come out and give the people a chance to voice their feelings," he said. "County commissioners will have to make a stand."

And all the while, the schools are trying to maintain a positive attitude.

"I think we have to take that stance. We're not trying to do anything to negatively interrupt this process," he said. "Have there been some bumps along the road? There have been. But from my perspective we're working diligently to make this process work.

"We're not complaining about Evergreen. The county commissioners paid for it. We agreed for Evergreen to come in. We're trying to follow it."

Commissioners might have their own opinions about where they believe the school system ought to be academically, Taylor said, but funding should not be tied to this process.

"Adequate facilities have to be provided and they have a responsibility to provide them for us," he said. "This process was supposed to be talking about facilities.

"For the most part, the first two (community) meetings it did. (At Goldsboro High) it got off-track."

Talking about curriculum and programs can and will be arranged, Taylor said. Just not in connection with the current dialogue about construction project needs.

"This process was put in place to talk about facilities," he said.