New year, same plan for school facilities
By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on April 26, 2007 2:05 PM
After nearly two years of bantering and bickering between the school board and county commission, the Board of Education approved a facilities plan during work session Wednesday -- the same list of construction needs first proposed in 2005.
The only difference is, that same list will cost millions more to execute, board members said.
Also during the three-hour meeting, the board unofficially adopted an $18 million local budget and a $12 million expansion budget in response to a request from the commission to address such areas as graduation rates, test scores, diversity and recruiting certified teachers. The package is expected to be passed at school board's May 7 meeting, in time to comply with the commission's May 15 deadline for budget requests.
Several facilities plans have been proposed in recent years, but stalled when the county commission decided to hire Evergreen Solutions to do a study of the school system. The Evergreen report was released in May 2006, prompting formation of the Facilities Master Plan Team and a series of community meetings in the fall. Committees were also directed to visit individual schools and assess needs and priorities.
The process actually started about six years ago, Superintendent Dr. Steven Taylor said. And each time the plan is delayed, construction costs continue to rise.
"The $90 million plan now stands at $105 million, before you include operational expenses," Taylor said. Calling escalating costs "a moving target," he said if new schools are considered, the price tag goes up even more with the acquisition of land, water and sewer.
Three plans were submitted for debate on Wednesday. In addition to the original proposal, termed "Plan A," two others were considered.
"Plan B is the original plan looking at recommendations of committees with the exception of renovations at Eastern Wayne Middle and Norwayne (Middle)," Taylor explained. The plan contains costs for leveling the two mentioned schools and building new schools on new sites. Plan C, he said, includes converting Charles B. Aycock High School into a middle school and constructing a brand new high school.
Cost for Plan B would be $127.3 million, while Plan C is estimated at $140.7 million.
Plan C was quickly eliminated, leaving debate between the remaining two proposals. It all boiled down to renovations at the two middle schools. The board agreed with the committees' findings and that the water problems and drainage were the biggest consideration. Whether that means new schools was another matter, officials said.
Sprunt Hill, assistant superintendent for auxiliary services, distributed an analysis of average school costs from the Department of Public Instruction, noting that "middle schools have gone up since 2005, by 67 percent."
"And we had a plan in 2005," Grantham replied.
Taylor suggested a compromise, to comply with the committees' recommendations.
"We do appreciate the work (the committee) did ... Since we're talking about the water runoff, shouldn't we just add some money for that?" he said.
The board discussed investigating topography at the two sites and providing extensive renovations to better utilize the existing facilities.
Hill explained that could require having to purchase modular units during the renovation period.
Six of the seven board members -- Rick Pridgen said he was "thinking about it" -- voted to approve Plan A, with the addendum of addressing concerns of water problems at the two middle schools.
The $18 million proposed local budget reflects an estimated 5 percent, or $725,000, increase, much of it dictated by mandated items such as teacher supplements and state textbooks.
The board also tacked on a $12 million expansion budget, which officials said complied with an earlier request from the commission to find measurable solutions to "increase graduation rates, improve test scores, address socio-economic diversity, recruit and retain qualified teachers, seeking the optimum classroom environment (and) devise a plan for teacher bonuses in the low-performing schools."
Taylor said when the first facilities master plan team meeting was held on Sept. 18, the district was asked to address the six areas and send in "some type of menu of options" for accomplishing them.
"We asked the county manager if there was a cap. There was not a number given," he said.
Taylor said his staff combined efforts and addressed the areas of programs and personnel, which was compiled in the form of an expansion budget.
"It certainly is our hope and desire that they'll at least look at some of those areas and provide funding for those areas because we were asked to address that," he said.
To address such problems as graduation rates, suggestions included hiring a dropout coordinator at each high school and at alternate school, after-school and Saturday tutoring programs. Other initiatives mentioned were high school reform development, software and technology and signing bonuses and teachers' supplements.
Board member John P. Grantham expressed some concern about the expansion budget, proposing items be voted on individually. He added that even though the commission asked for the list, he said he doubted they would fund it in its entirety.
Board Chairwoman Shirley Sims said discussing the list item by item would be a waste of time.
"We don't need to take out anything that we send them, since this is their plan and not ours," she said. She agreed that passage might be unlikely, but once the board learns what the commission will fund, it can reconvene and prioritize the most pressing needs.
"I think they need to see (the plan)," she said. "After we know the dollar amount, we can come back and take some things out."
Grantham said there is already public concern over a possible tax increase that stems from the facilities plan, so it wouldn't hurt to vote on the individual items within the expansion budget.
"We have been criticized for not asking for what we need," Ms. Sims countered. "We're always held responsible for what we don't ask for. We have responded to their request. We have agreed to everything they asked."
"Why are we jumping through hoops to come up with money from the expansion budget, knowing they're not going to come anywhere near funding it?" Grantham asked.
Taylor said that, lacking an official number, the only course of action was to present a plan in its entirety.
"It put us sort of in a difficult situation. It keeps on adding up but they did ask us to address these areas and we did in good conscience try to do what they asked us to do," he said.
Pridgen said he was grateful for all the work that went into completing the expansion budget.
"The county commissioners have asked for it several times, even made mention that they didn't want to consider the facilities plan unless we provided them with this information," he said. The decision to fund lies with the commission, Pridgen said, but the fact remains that they "asked for it as a separate piece. We have given it to them as a separate piece. We have done what they asked us to do."
Grantham pressed the board to consider an itemization of the expansion budget, prompting several to say they favored approving everything it contained.
"I would like to see all of the expansion items that we have on here in this $12 million (plan) deleted with the exception of three items -- sign-on bonus, teacher supplements and cameras and access control at each school for security purposes," Grantham said.
Although the budget and other proposals are expected to pass on May 7, Taylor received permission from the board to provide an unofficial copy to the county manager in advance "for planning purposes until its approved."
Taylor said the process has been exhaustive, but one he hopes will produce positive results.
"I'm hoping that we can finally get some action (taken)," he said.
"Everybody has their opinion but in the end you come together....We don't want it to be a battle every year."
After the school board holds its May meeting, Taylor said the finance committee of the Facilities Master Plan Team will be convened to determine possible funding options for facilities projects.
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