12/14/07 — On the same page at last?

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On the same page at last?

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on December 14, 2007 2:31 PM

Hoping to breathe new life into the school facility discussion before the end of the year, Wayne County Manager Lee Smith released today a nearly $23 million proposal to begin work on 10 county schools.

Working separate from -- but with the knowledge and tacit endorsement of -- a committee of county commissioners, school board members and business leaders that has been meeting behind closed doors in recent weeks, Smith explained that his proposal is an attempt to "look at the school's priority list and some projects that might be affordable."

"I didn't get a 'no,'" Smith said about the presentation he made to the group several weeks ago. "It seemed to be accepted in a positive manner.

"I don't want to get in front of anybody, but if there are some things we can get done ... let's do them."

The proposal was created, he continued, with the knowledge of county school Superintendent Dr. Steve Taylor and his staff.

Taylor said he had discussed some of the possibilities for the plan with Smith over the last few weeks, but did not actively participate in the actual creation of the document.

"I didn't see it on paper until this Tuesday," Taylor said this morning in a joint press conference with Smith, School Board Chairwoman Thelma Smith and Commission Chairman Bud Gray.

He said although preliminary examination of the proposal was positive, he would have to take it before the board, which is scheduled to meet in special session next week.

He added that he was pleased to see some movement toward action on the part of the county commission.

"We have submitted six plans in recent years," Taylor said. "This is the first response. We have been wanting to get something moving."

Mrs. Smith indicated that the school board would react favorably to the proposal.

In it, Norwayne Middle, Eastern Wayne Middle, Greenwood Middle, Mount Olive Middle and Brogden Primary would all see major renovations over the next two to three years.

"I've not gotten detailed about those," Smith said. "But the majority of the projects I'm recommending off of that (priority) list are for classrooms."

Mount Olive Middle, Carver Heights Elementary, School Street, Dillard Middle, Goldsboro High and Charles B. Aycock High also would receive minor improvements.

The funds for the projects are proposed to come from several sources -- $16.4 million financed, likely through certificates of participation, $4.5 million from both county and school cash reserves, and $1.2 million from the utility savings resulting from performance contracts.

The estimated $1.6 million annual debt service (for 20 years) on the financed portion would be paid for through lottery and existing sales tax revenues already designated for school capital.

The proposal does not, Smith emphasized, call for a property tax increase.

"What I tried to do was listen to the school board and look at what they gave me, and listen to the commissioners: 'No tax increase. What can we do?'" Smith said.

The proposal, however, is only a fraction of the $105.1 million long-range facilities needs request submitted by the school board earlier this year. (Another $15.9 million was estimated for operating costs in the school board's original request. But Smith said he believes most of his proposed improvements can be done with little to no operational increase.)

"Is this everything they need? Absolutely not. But this is a good start. I think this is reasonable and affordable," Smith said. "I tried to use their data. These really were the top priorities."

But the proposal goes beyond just facility construction and renovation.

Also included in it are several policy recommendations.

The first is the continued hiring of project managers for large construction projects to help control cost overruns.

The second is the establishment of guidelines for the use of mobile classrooms.

"We know mobile classrooms are acceptable, but to what degree and how many," Smith said.

The third is the establishment of an annual small projects facilities budget to pay cash when possible.

The fourth is that before any new school is built, the school board develop an efficiency cost analysis of existing facilities and analyze current education trends and alternatives to new construction.

And finally, the fifth is the development, in coordination with the county, of an annual current expense budget policy.

"I have to stay under 2 percent (growth) for operations. So let's talk about the schools," Smith said. "They need to know what they can depend on."

Those recommendations, he continued, also were developed with Taylor's consent.

"I think he understands the spirit of these recommendations," Smith said. "I think they're reasonable. And moving forward with this piece is contingent on acting on these recommendations."

The only one that might fall outside that expectation, he added, is the annual budget policy -- a potentially complicated issue to negotiate.

He indicated, though, that the package already has the informal approval of his board.

"I think this is a good beginning and look forward to discussing this more with other board members and the school board," Gray said in a written statement.

Smith hopes it will be taken up at the next board of education meeting, which Taylor and Mrs. Smith could be as early as next week.

"This is my proposal to go to Dr. Taylor to be presented to the school board to see if it's what they want to do," Smith said. "What the school board's going to think? I don't know.

"But I feel very confident that if the school board says yes to this concept, then you'll get an affirmative from my board and we'll sit down and approve this kind of in chunks and pieces (as they come up).

"The schools have waited a long time and I think it's time to get started."

The series of meetings were prompted by the concerns of a group of local industry leaders who were interested in improving education outcomes in Wayne County.

Wayne County Businesses for Excellence in Education facilitated meetings between the county commissioners and the board of education to get the lines of communication open and the work in process.

Jimmie Edmundson, one of the dozens of business leaders who took part in the effort, said this is only the "first step of what should be an ongoing dialogue about the education of children in Wayne County.

"Facilities are important, but that is just one piece of it," he said. "We want a comprehensive plan that makes sense."

Edmundson said a final school plan will include facilities needs, county finances and initiatives to improve student outcomes and reduce dropouts.

"We are in it for the long haul," he said. "We want to help."

-- Staff writer Phyllis Moore and News-Argus Editor Renee Carey contributed to this report.