01/04/07 — Schools top new board chairman's list for '07

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Schools top new board chairman's list for '07

By Andrew Bell
Published in News on January 4, 2007 2:04 PM

County Commissioner John Bell has only served as the board's chairman for a couple of weeks, but he already has some definitive goals he wants to see accomplished.

Much like his predecessor Atlas Price and County Manager Lee Smith, Bell said one of the most important issues facing the county this year is an answer to the school facilities question.

And like Price and Smith, Bell said he wants to see more discussions between the commissioners and the school board to ensure progress is made in 2007. Open, frank communication is what is needed, he said.

"We should pull off our commissioner and school board robes and talk about how we want to move the county," Bell said.

The only way both sides can reach the same goal is by letting each know how the other truly feels about an issue, Bell added.

"We need to leave our personal feelings aside and think about what's best for the children of Wayne County," he said. "That's the best way to reach an understanding with one another."

But the public also must play a larger role if residents want the school board's $90 million facility plan, which was approved last spring, to become a reality, he said. The most likely way for the county to come up with the money is to sell bonds, which requires a public vote.

Smith said last week he is not sure whether a bond proposal can be ready to be on the ballot in May, but Bell said it is possible if public support is strong enough. Officials prefer to place a specific referendum on the ballot with general elections to save money. Many of those involved in the school building issue have said they would like to see it placed on the May ballot. If a proposal isn't ready, or if officials feel the public has not been sufficiently educated about the need for its passage, then the county likely would have to wait until the fall.

Bell said residents who truly care about Wayne County's public education system need to look beyond their local school.

"I want the citizens to look at the total school system," Bell said. "If we have a low- performing school anywhere in the county, the people should care even if it's not your school," Bell said. "I want all 31 schools to be the best-performing. Let's look at it as our school system."

The county commissioners hired a consultant last year to evaluate the district's facilities needs. The commissioners and school board then held a series of meetings around the county to get input from the public. Commissioners toured every school in the county to see the needs firsthand. Subcommittees were created to focus on different aspects of putting a construction program in place -- real estate, finance, facilities and education. They are to report their findings to the facilities master plan team.

Bell said he the subcommittees should come up with a prioritized list of needs. The schools in the most dire need of repairs should be considered first, he said.

"I don't want a new school if Brogden or one of the others is still in bad shape," Bell said.

Bell said he would like to extend the public comment portion of the school planning process to other issues. He said he strongly believes that knowing how residents in a particular area feel about an issue is important to charting a course for the county's future. He said he would like to see, starting in his own district, community forums at which the public can talk about the issues facing them every day.

"I want to hear from anybody and hear what the people have on their mind, so we can fix the problems," Bell said.

The commissioners will need the public's input over the next several months as they decides on the county's capital improvement needs, Bell said. Departments such as social services, health and Services on Aging will either need to expand their current buildings or to construct new ones. Those projects could cost millions of dollars each, Bell said. The county will also need to consider making improvements to or building a new county jail. The existing facility often is forced to hold more inmates that it has beds for, Bell noted.

He said the commissioners also will need to keep an eye on potential economic development, which is another area that he believes deserves extra attention. Bell, who represents Wayne on the Eastern Region development organization, said he has suggested that any company that approaches officials and is interested in any location in the 13 counties included in the region should be encouraged to look at every county before making a decision.

Bell said the formation of the Wayne County Development Alliance last year out of the Wayne County Economic Development Commission, Goldsboro Committee of 100 and Mount Olive Committee of 100 will "pay off big dividends" in the coming years. The alliance already has help secure a new company, AAR Manufacturing, for Wayne County.

Bell said he will encourage the commissioners to put aside any disagreements they might have and work together as a team in 2007. It could be a pivotal year for the county, he said.

"There are many things I'd like to see done, but we'll handle this as a board. We will work as a team, and I think we have a great board to do that," Bell said.