02/22/09 — Bond vote for schools discussed

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Bond vote for schools discussed

By Steve Herring
Published in News on February 22, 2009 2:00 AM

It took the Wayne County Board of Commissioners more than an hour Friday to answer a question posed by Chairman Bud Gray -- did they support efforts by the Board of Education to close one school and consolidate two others?

The debate didn't begin over that particular issue, but it was sparked when Commissioner Jack Best once again called the county's $23 million school facilities plan a "Band-Aid" approach.

The board finally, by consensus, said it supported the school board's plans to close Goldsboro Intermediate School and to consolidate Southern Academy in Mount Olive with Belfast Academy.

Commissioners also asked County Manager Lee Smith to ask school board members to meet with them at their Tuesday, March 3 session to talk about facilities.

Best renewed an earlier call to put the school issue before the public in the form of a possible bond vote.

"In my opinion it is time for the public to decide," he said.

Best said he would like to see a 10-year plan of between $120 million to $130 million to build new schools. A bond that size would add between 10 to 15 cents on the tax rate.

With all that is coming up in the future, the schools might not fare as well if something isn't done, he said.

Best called the current plan "putting Band-Aids" on old buildings when the county needs to be building new schools. Along with building new schools, the county needs to be demolishing old ones as well, he said.

A bond issue will not pass if the $23 million is spent because people in the communities were the work will be done will have what they want and not be inclined to support the issue, he said.

Commissioner Sandra McCullen, who is the schools' associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction, told Best that the school reorganization was a response to requests from commissioners.

She reminded him that the county is providing just $2.5 million of the $23 million. The remainder will come from some $5 million in lottery proceeds and the rest will borrowed.

Smith noted that the $23 million plan had been arrived at by using a priority list submitted by the school board.

The projects were selected from the top of the list and were based on not creating a "negative impact" on operations, he said. Taxpayers also were promised no tax dollars would be used.

Best said the county needed a plan that could be discussed at public hearing.

Ms. McCullen said that the $23 million plan had been discussed at such hearings.

"The only people who had a chance to talk were your people," he said. "It was not a public hearing, it was a hearing."

Mrs. McCullen responded that the school board had done what had been asked of it by commissioners.

"We asked them to do it and they have done what we have asked," Commissioner John Bell said.

Smith reminded Best that bids for the first projects would be going out within 45 days.

"Jack has some good points," said Commissioner Andy Anderson.

Anderson said he thought the school system would be getting rid of the Fremont School but that "they are still throwing money into it."

"What they want, it can't be done," he said. "The mentality is that they have got to have community schools and we don't care how many we have."

Community schools are too expensive to operate, Best said.

"Let's put off the bid process for four months," he said. "But I don't care if you throw $23 million away, but that is what you are doing."

"That ship has left the dock," Smith said.

The county should not build new schools without closing others, he said.

Mrs. McCullen wanted to know which schools he would close.

"Do you want me to do that or (Assistant Superintendent for Auxiliary Services) Sprunt (Hill)," Best said.

Best said Hill knows more about the schools facilities than anyone else in the county. For example, Best said the county could build a new elementary school at Grantham and use the existing one for a middle school.

"The Board of Education doesn't see it that way," Commissioner Steve Keen said.

"I don't care how they see it," Best said. "I am just saying that is how I see it."

Smith called the $23 million project a "bridgegap" effort while the county looks long-term at what it wants to do. Commissioner J.D. Evans call it a "meantime" plan.

"It has taken us time to get here to meantime," he said. "Something has got to be done meantime or we are going to lose face. We need to do something in a good-faith effort.

"Let's move instead of delaying."

Anderson said he agreed with Smith that "the ship has left the dock and we don't want to bring it back."

"We have got to fix the schools," he said. "We can't let them fall down. We need to get with the school board like Lee said."