09/07/08 — Commissioner Best: School board is "planting flowers around the outhouse"

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Commissioner Best: School board is "planting flowers around the outhouse"

By Steve Herring
Published in News on September 7, 2008 11:50 AM

Wayne County isn't fixing problems with schools, rather "it is planting flowers around the outhouse," Commissioner Jack Best said.

Best voiced concerns during the commission's Tuesday meeting that school press releases tout the number of high school graduates who go on to college, while little is heard about the ones who drop out of school.

"All they are doing is putting flowers around the outhouse," he said. "I am not sure how to get the public the truth about what is happening in our school system. It just bothers me."

Best's comments were sparked by a letter from the parent of a Spring Creek High School student.

Best said the parent wrote that while attending an open house at Spring Creek Elementary School, he had been told "our duly elected commissioners refused to allocate funds for further expansion," specifically a new gym at the high school.

The parent also complained that Spring Creek High School is actually two schools -- a high school and a middle school -- with an inadequate gym and "zero room" to grow. He added that commissioners appear more concerned about avoiding a property tax increase in an election year than planning for the future.

"They are blaming people who don't have any control of what the (school facilities) priorities are," Best said. "It is unbelievable people are still blaming county commissioners for no gym at Spring Creek High School, and it is not even on the (school board facilities) priority list."

The commission could solve the gym problem at Spring Creek and every other facilities' deficiency with one vote -- although taxpayers might not be too happy about the consequences, he added.

"It would be so simple for commissioners to sit up here and say 'let's vote for a $120 million bond issue' and just tell people it is a school bond that will cost somewhere between10-15 cents on the tax dollar," Best said. "It'd be so easy to let people vote, but we don't get to the root of the problem. It's not about brick and mortar. It is partly. I also have a list of priorities the school board gave to county commissioners and said 'give us the money.'"

Best said commissioners in December offered a solution -- $22 million so no tax increase would be needed. The school board provided a priority list and the Spring Creek High School gym is not even on the list, he said. Spring Creek Elementary is number five on the list.

"All we could hear last year was 'give us the money, give us the money.' Here it is Sept. 1 and we don't even have adequate plans to take before the Local Government Commission to get permission to borrow the money. Secondly, they found some of their estimates were wrong.

"We are trying to do the best we can with the money we have. It costs a lot of money, and you can't do it overnight."

Best said the school system has the hardest job in the whole county and has "great personnel," but that 30 percent of the students still are not graduating.

"Those kids are the ones who don't have a chance," he said. "They are the ones who will be on social services or incarcerated for rest of their lives, for the rest of our lives, and we will have to pay for it. It is much cheaper if we can keep these students in school. Schools have a tough job. They are our last line of defense to teach children, to give them some hope."

Best and Commissioners Atlas Price Jr. and John Bell said people are too focused on construction.

"There again, dollars and cents don't solve all the problems," Price said.

"We can have anything we can pay for," Commissioner Efton Sager said. "Funding and the way it is done and where the state has required counties to take more and more responsibility of construction costs has put us behind.

"One thing I'd like to see is lottery funds used more for construction and not add more early childhood development programs. We have enough of those. Those early childhood development programs apparently haven't worked that great because over the years our graduation rates haven't got better. They have gotten worse."

Sager said the only way the county could "satisfy every facility need that a lot of people feel we need out there is to have a tremendous tax increase."

"We are following the priorities set by the school board," Best said. "It is not a criticism of the school board, but for some reason everybody wants to make it look better than it does and not fix it. Nobody is willing to do that, nobody. Nobody that I know of, especially those people on Royall Avenue (Wayne Schools central office). All they want to do is put flowers around the outhouse."

Best said there is not a single commissioner who does not want to see the school system be the best it can be. There is not one commissioner who wouldn't vote "to build all the schools they need" if they (commissioners) thought bricks and mortar would do the best job for education, he said.

"That is not where the problem is," Best said.

"The public is focused on construction," Bell said. "No one is managing school populations. People are just running to any school they want to go to, and it has been that way for years. You have got schools half-empty. You have got schools overcrowded and they are still asking for more money to build more schools."

Bell said he failed to see the economy of driving 10 miles to Eastern Wayne High School when Goldsboro High School might be closer.

"Both are part of the same system," he said. "You can make one as good as any other. You have got to step up to the plate."

"The reality, like it or not, is people want to go to what they perceive as better schools," Best said. "You have to give the customer what they want. Parents, in this case, are our customers, and you have got to give them what they perceive as a better value. They perceive they get a better education at Eastern Wayne."