12/16/07 — A first step for facilities solution

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A first step for facilities solution

By News-Argus Staff
Published in News on December 16, 2007 2:16 AM



News-Argus staff

Wayne County Businesses for Excellence in Education might have brought the county commissioners and board of education to the table, but leaders of both groups say joint concern for the county's future and new, open lines of communication are what will get a facilities budget on the books this coming year.

But even with the $23 million initial plan for school facilities projects, both groups insist that future good news for improved schools and more construction and repair efforts will require community support as well as budget dollars.

The group of business leaders that facilitated the initial meetings after months of stalemate proposed the gatherings as a way to get both sides in the ongoing facilities debate to listen, learn and reach some sort of consensus on where to go next.

County Manager Lee Smith said during an interview Friday that getting together allowed both sides to see the challenges each faces as well as the goals they share.

"We better understand each other's position," he said.

He said additional data submitted by the schools allowed the county to move forward with a concrete plan to begin work on the list of $105.1 million in facilities needs.

County Superintendent Dr. Steven Taylor said school personnel and the board of education were glad, too -- to finally get a response to the information and six plans that have been sent to the county and to see the facilities process move forward.

He cautioned that since this new proposal will include a substantial commitment of school district dollars, when the time comes for the next round of facilities work, the ball will be in the county's hands to come up with a funding proposal.

"We will have exhausted our revenues," Taylor said.

Smith said the county is aware of the school district's commitment as well as the funding limitations that it operates under -- mandates that limit where money can be used and state and federal resources that vary from year to year.

They are the same restrictions the county operates under, he added.

Concern over the need for several construction projects in the county -- most notably a new jail -- are also factors when deciding what to do to get the money to build new schools or to repair existing ones.

Board of Education Chair-man Thelma Smith said she and the other board members understand that all the work cannot be done at once, adding that the schools that are most in need of work are at the top of the list -- as recommended by the school district.

"I think we all agree that we are just excited about having something to move forward on," she said. "I think people in these communities will be mighty, mighty happy."

Lee Smith said that the schools on the initial list -- Norwayne Middle, Eastern Wayne Middle, Greenwood Middle, Mount Olive Middle, Brogden Primary, Carver Heights Elementary, Charles B. Aycock High, School Street Elementary, Dillard Middle and Goldsboro High -- represented only 20 percent of the facilities needs reported by the school district.

He added that the initial proposal is merely a first step, and that ongoing discussion will be needed.

Mrs. Smith said that now that the business community has opened the door, she and county commission chairman Bud Gray will make sure the communication and progress continue.

"We just want to see Wayne County move forward -- our schools, our communities," she said. "I believe the dialogue that we're having now will open up a lot of avenues."

But even with all the money, all the consensus and all the communication, Mrs. Smith said county schools most need their communities, especially parents, to be involved and engaged.

"Schools need support," she said. "We cannot do it by ourselves. I do believe from this, this community is going to come together."

She added that Wayne County schools are full of good news and success stories -- and challenges.

"Our kids are graduating as excellent students who are matriculating everywhere in the country," she said. "If you want a good education in this county, you can get it."

That said, there are still students the schools are not reaching -- those who are disruptive in the classroom and stall the education process, and those who simply are not performing basic skills they will need later in life.

And reaching them means getting their parents involved, Mrs. Smith said.

She suggested that middle school is the place to start the hard work -- and that reaching children there will require community support and educational effort, which, she added, can come from staff and volunteers.

Students who come from broken homes and poverty or who have no strong male figures in their lives need strong schools and good teachers who care, she said.

And good teachers, Taylor added, do not come cheap.

Supplements in surrounding counties -- local additions to state teacher salaries -- make it difficult for Wayne County to attract -- and keep -- good teachers, he said.

"We have to be competitive," he said. "We are also a business."

Lee Smith acknowledged that he, too, faces the same issues when trying to bring in new staff, adding that supplements were among the issues the county will have to consider in the future.

Taylor emphasized that school personnel are constantly working to provide better services and educational opportunities for the county's children -- much like any group of professionals.

"That is what we do every day," he said.

And, he added, that hard work can be seen in recent improvements in test scores as well as other new programs started recently in the district to offer students more opportunity to explore and learn, as well as additional resources allocated in schools to help students who are struggling.

But like most schools, he said, Wayne County is hampered by the No Child Left Behind legislation, which mandates that every child will be at grade level within the next six years -- a Herculean task, Taylor suggested, that is not accompanied by the money necessary to create the programs to make such a goal possible.

Add to that Adequate Yearly Progress measurements that make some schools targets when they are actually improving and succeeding, and creating a school district that operates within budget and meets state and federal guidelines to the letter can be a challenge, he said.

Taylor added, however, that school personnel are responding to the criticisms and suggestions.

"We get it all the time," he said. "Don't think we are not listening."

Mentoring programs in every school -- a requirement -- as well as other programs designed to help students academically and socially -- are just part of that effort to respond to community needs.

But that doesn't mean that the work should stop -- or that the community should settle for completion of only a portion of the school facilities projects, he added.

There is no question -- the condition of the schools and classrooms affect student learning, Taylor said.

"Our children should be our priority," he said. "Even if we had the worst school district in the world, you still have to provide (adequate) facilities. We have to give our kids the best advantage we can."

And as long as the uncertainty of state and federal funding levels remains a factor in budgeting, that means county and school officials will have to continue working together.

Lee Smith added that county officials have to think ahead, too, to the next growth patterns and other factors that will affect where schools are built and what future needs might be.

"We could do something now that could be wrong next year," he said.

Continued communication and more data will make those decisions smarter, he added.