05/23/07 — Schools, county reach consensus on next chapter in facilities debate

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Schools, county reach consensus on next chapter in facilities debate

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on May 23, 2007 1:45 PM

Both sides went into Tuesday night's meeting between the Wayne County Board of Commissioners and the county Board of Education saying they wanted to sit down and work together to move forward on addressing school facility needs, despite a long and sometimes acrimonious history.

And by the end of the more than two-hour long session, there seemed to finally be a breakthrough.

"I think it was a very successful meeting," school board Chairwoman Shirley Sims said. "It was a very fruitful evening."

She explained that she was happy after the meeting for two reasons.

One, she felt her board was walking away with a clear idea of what the commissioners needed next to move forward on facility construction and renovations, and two, because school officials were finally going to get the chance to explain to the commissioners just what exactly is done inside those buildings every day.

"I think what they're saying is prioritize," Mrs. Sims said. "We thought we'd done that, but what I think they want us to do is number them.

"And I think that'll be quite easy for us. I think we're on target and can give it to them in just a day or two."

Commission Chairman John Bell confirmed that a prioritized list is exactly what the county is looking for.

With the estimates for construction and operating expenses already laid out for each project, he explained that they just need to know how much funding to work toward.

"We're not trying to run the school system. There's a process we have to go through and we have to go through it together -- us and the school board. It's got to be complete," Bell said. "They can't just tell us they need $50 million. They've got to tell us which projects they need to do with that $50 million.

"A priority list is the very next step. This is where the rubber hits the road right now."

Mrs. Sims also was pleased that the commissioners agreed to meet with her board again in the near future to discuss the school system's academic programs and progress.

It was an idea proposed by school board member Thelma Smith in response to concerns voiced by the commissioners that without good performing schools, selling the community on building new facilities would be almost impossible.

"What I'm hearing in my district is that we've got to sell the whole process -- the programs as well as the facilities," Commissioner Jack Best said.

County Manager Lee Smith also explained that the two sides needed to come to an understanding about the academic side of things because as the capital projects move forward, there will be some balancing that has to be done between funding programs and funding construction.

"I think we're ready to make some decisions, but what does the community want?" he asked. "What is the balance between current and capital expenses and quality education?"

Not all the school board members agreed, though, that construction should be related to performance.

"We're still playing games here with this stuff," John Grantham said. "Performance in our schools has not been an issue in the general public. There is no groundswell. There's not even a tremor that I can tell. I don't think it's an issue."

Still, Mrs. Smith admitted that they haven't done a good job of educating the commissioners, and perhaps not even the public as a whole, about how school personnel are meeting the challenges inside the classroom.

"We've always talked about facilities. That's all we talk about when we get together," she said. "Let's take away the facilities for one meeting.

"Let us show you what we're doing. I think you will feel better about how we are spending the money if you can actually see."

And once they do, school Superintendent Dr. Steven Taylor said he believes the two boards will be able to come together on the future of the county's schools.

"I'm not going to sit here and tell you we have a perfect school system because nobody has a perfect school system, but we've put many things in place and we're doing our best to get there," he said. "I think it's vitally important we work as a team (because) I know we all have the children at our heart."