02/02/10 — Duplin boards go over pros, cons for school consolidation

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Duplin boards go over pros, cons for school consolidation

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on February 2, 2010 1:46 PM

KENANSVILLE - The Duplin Board of Education and Duplin County Commission met in a special session Monday to hear presentations regarding school facilities and to discuss the issue.

Jeff Tsai of the Operations Research/Education Lab-oratory at North Carolina State University, sfl+a architect Robert Ferris and Ed Causey, area director of the USDA Rural Development office, spoke to the board members regarding school placement, school planning and potential funding for school construction.

The last time Ferris met with the commissioners, they gave the architect a list of questions to answer, Ferris said.

"Rule No. 1 tonight is to give you answers to those questions," he said.

The cost of the land to place a new school in the area proposed by Tsai would be around $700 and $1,600 per acre, which is a "very conservative" estimate, Ferris said.

And operating the new school would cost the county $111,000 less than current costs, because closing other facilities would mean fewer cafeteria workers, assistant principals and clerical workers. Ferris did not factor any changes in teaching staff or coaching staff into that number, he said.

There would also be a $25,000 increase in transportation costs for the county, but that was another conservative estimate, Ferris said.

The total operating cost for the Duplin County school system in 2008-09 was $82,540,000, and the total estimated operating cost with the new school in place would be $82,429,000, according to figures Ferris presented.

"Again, we believe that to be a very conservative number," he said.

The annual lease payment for the new school, including land, sewer and water and furniture, fixtures and equipment costs, would be $2.2 million a year, Ferris estimated. Over a 40-year period and calculating in a 4 percent interest rate inflation, the total savings could be more than $10 million, he said.

The numbers came from the architect working with Superintendent Dr. Wiley J. Doby and other school system officials.

Ferris also presented information to the two boards regarding where the current facilities plan came from. The architect himself worked with a steering committee in 2005, comprised of local school officials and community members, who worked to create a Duplin schools master plan for future development. That committee looked at many possibilities, including new construction and renovation of existing facilities, redistricting, grade structuring and options such as distance learning and career technical academies.

Jeff Thigpen, director of transportation for the schools, also provided information regarding how many athletic programs and English course offerings are provided at each high school. The larger schools are able to offer more opportunities for students in both athletics and academics, he said.

"If we create a solid vision for the students, in the end, they're going to be successful," Ferris said.

Causey then spoke to the board members about possible funding for school construction. The new school could be funded through a USDA loan with either a 30-year or 40-year term, depending on the details of the project, he said.

The county itself would be the applicant and would be responsible for paying back the monies, which could come in part from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act stimulus funding, Causey said.

But all monies would have to be available at the time construction would begin, as well as any tax credits in place by that time, and it would probably be best if the county established a non-profit entity to handle the project, he said.

Commissioner David Fussell questioned how the school board's lawsuit against the commissioners would affect any possible funding.

"Would the USDA lend us this money with this lawsuit over our heads?" he asked.

The question that the funding agency would ask is whether the county could afford to pay for any repercussions of the lawsuit and a new school, Causey responded. Ideally, the lawsuit should either be resolved or the county should at least know what kind of impact to expect, he said.

Chairman Cary Turner asked Causey what would happen if the board held a required public hearing and the majority of people were against building a new school.

If that happened, Causey's office would probably ask the commissioners why they moved ahead with the loan if people were against it, he replied.

Fussell also called into question how paying for both money outlined in the school board lawsuit and paying for a new school would affect taxpayers in Duplin County.

To collect the money outlined in the school lawsuit would require roughly a 16-cent tax increase, and paying for a new school would cost an additional 7-cent tax increase, which would give Duplin County the highest tax rate in the state, Fussell said.

Turner also questioned how farmers in particular would be affected by a tax increase.

"You're hitting that small handful that's been trying to keep this county going year to year," he said.

The county should ask those questions, and additionally, the USDA office would want to look at the county's fund balance, and "we would quite frankly want your fund balance to be considerably more than 8 percent," Causey said.

However, Board of Education Chairman Reginald Kenan said it is clear that children in Duplin County schools need proper facilities in which to learn.

Some students at some schools in the county do not have the benefit of hot water, while one building has holes in the bathroom wall, Kenan said.

"I say this out of passion because I've seen it," he said.

Kenan asked members of both boards to set aside emotion in favor of basing decisions on data and facts.

"The worst thing we can do for our children is to close our minds," he said.

Board of Education member Emily Manning also spoke in support of the school facilities plan.

"We believed it to be a good plan then (2005), we believe it to be a good plan today," she said.

Commissioner Harold Raynor commented that if there are problems with the school facilities, it is the Board of Education's responsibility.

"Why blame us for those conditions? That is the school board's responsibility to keep the schools in order," Raynor said.

But Kenan said he did not want to blame commissioners, and Doby argued that the school facilities are in better shape than they were four years ago.

"Are they where they need to be? No," he said.

Repairs to the schools were not put on the back burner, but were difficult to approach because of the cost involved in repairing old buildings, Doby said.

The USDA loan could potentially be used to repair existing schools, but the question would be raised as to whether the building would still be viable by the time the loan was paid off, Causey said.

And renovations could prove to be more expensive, while new, more energy-efficient construction could save the county money, Ferris said.

"Ultimately, you will build. You will build or you will stop educating students," he said.

No public comment period was held during the meeting. Turner adjourned the meeting until Feb. 15.