11/02/06 — School facilities work ready to begin

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School facilities work ready to begin

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on November 2, 2006 1:45 PM

The next step in the process toward financing a school construction plan could start as early as next week, Facilities Master Plan Team members decided Wednesday.

The team, comprised of representatives from the school board and county commission, will meet Nov. 9 with two of the three focus committees as suggested in the Evergreen Solutions report.

Evergreen Solutions, a consulting firm hired by the commission last year to assess facilities needs in the public school system, laid out a framework that included garnering community input and data collection before determining how to fund the projects.

In late August, the team began a six-week series of community meetings at each of the high schools in the county. Among the topics debated were overcrowding, building conditions and how to pay for the needs.

"I think we have had a good hard six weeks," Superintendent Dr. Steven Taylor said. "We heard all the comments that have been made. Some of the things we have heard while we were out there, the staff is already working on."

"Overall, I thought everywhere we went that they were pretty much in agreement with our building plan except one, and they were not because they don't need any buildings," school board member Lehman Smith said.

According to the Evergreen report, much data collection has already been accomplished by the school system through information prepared by R.N. Rouse and the Long-Range Facilities Plan done in November 2005. Three committees were recommended to verify information and collect additional data -- Educational Process Focus Committee, Facilities and Real Estate Focus Committee and the Financing of School Facilities Focus Committee.

Taylor said the Nov. 9 session will primarily focus on the educational and facilities committees and charging them with their responsibilities and duties. The finance committee will come into play later, once all the data has been collected.

School board member Pete Gurley asked about the timeframe the committees would follow.

"We want this information back to us by a certain time," said Sprunt Hill, assistant superintendent for auxiliary services.

Taylor said it would take a lot of commitment from each of the committees, as well as time and effort.

"Hopefully our community folks understand that when they took on this process," he said, noting that every effort would be made to move the process along.

"We just want to make sure every school gets covered."

Commissioner Jack Best said he envisioned the committees returning with their findings as well as a list of needs for the next 10 years.

"And they're going to look at the whole process in whether you need new teachers or staff ... suggestions of everything you can possibly imagine," he said. "These committees have an opportunity to really lay the roadwork, so to speak, on a path for the next 10 years of what the schools are going to look like.

"You have got 120 students that you have to teach at home because they're not physically and mentally capable of coming to school, but you're responsible for them. We have got to figure out how we're going to do all that over the next 10 years."

Best said he is confident in the committee members the two boards selected to make the rounds at the schools.

"We have handpicked our committee members, and I'm sure you did, too," he said. "I hope these people will take their responsibility pretty seriously. I'm sure when Atlas (Price), John (Bell) and I went out and asked these people to meet and explained it's going to be an awful lot of work. It's an important part of our life for the next 10 years or longer."

Taylor said the group would continue to follow the guidelines laid out by Evergreen. And, once the findings are returned, meetings will be held with the finance committee.

"Financing is an easy piece," County Manager Lee Smith said. "We're looking at what's going to be most economical, what's going to be the most timely."

Best said if the timeline for the committees is not acceptable, it could be changed.

"Let them do their own work. I think they'll come back with a better understanding. And also, we won't be rushing them and I think they'll do a better job for us," he said.

Lee Smith said before any funding could be approved by the commission, the bottom line would be to consider the operational costs.

"That's the problem Mecklenberg and Wake (counties) have made. ... How much can you afford without a tax increase?" he said.

School board member George Moye alluded to rumblings that the commission has funds available for the school construction needs.

"We have heard that the county commissioners could afford to fund $40 million without a tax increase," he said.

Commissioner John Bell replied, "I don't know where you got that information, but we never have discussed that."

Best suggested the finance committee will "figure out how to finance it, where the money's going to come from."

"We have appointed some first class people to these committees," he said. "Let them have a chance to operate. I hope they'll come back with everything you can possibly think of."