02/16/11 — Best to schools: Let's eye building options

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Best to schools: Let's eye building options

By Steve Herring
Published in News on February 16, 2011 1:46 PM

The Wayne County Board of Education has reason not to trust the county commissioners because of past failures to act on funding, but that is no excuse to base school construction decisions on politics, Commissioner Jack Best said.

However, school board members are doing just that with the Eastern Wayne Middle School project even though they know it is a bad plan, Best said during the commissioners' Tuesday meeting.

Best noted that Commissioner Andy Anderson had suggested a meeting between the two boards at commissioners last meeting, but that "we didn't get a lot of action."

Best then suggested a March 2 meeting at lunch or in the afternoon with the school board and the public. It gives everybody enough time to make arrangements to attend and "let's hash this thing out," he said.

Nor is the apparent division just between commissioners and the school board. It was evident among commissioners as well during their Tuesday morning meeting.

While conceding that they cannot force the school board to participate, the commissioners split 4-3 to unilaterally schedule a joint meeting between the two boards for March 2. A time and location were not mentioned.

Best was joined by Bud Gray and Andy Anderson in voting for the motion. Keen, John Bell and Sandy McCullen voted no.

Bell chided Chairman J.D. Evans for not taking a stand by not voting. Evans responded that by not voting he had in fact acted. In accordance with board policy, Evans' failure to vote was counted as a "yes" vote.

Best said the county needs to be looking long range and that he would have no problem asking county residents to approve a quarter-cent sales tax to help "do the right thing to pay for the schools."

"Everybody wants to say this is about the children," Best said. "That is pure bull. This is about politics. If you will go out and look at our schools today each one has a little new building stuck over there with classrooms that we built in the '90s.

"They did that to satisfy each district. This is Wayne County. It is about money. It is about efficiency. It is also about education. Whether you like it or not, we have to run these schools efficiently."

No one on the school board has ever built anything and even school board advisers know Eastern Wayne is not a good use of its money, he said.

"They are afraid if they don't use this money now that this board, because we have held back before, won't give them anymore," Best said. "I can understand that. I don't blame them. I wouldn't trust us either, but it is time to really sit down and talk about this 20-year plan rather than the appeasement of each district. Rather than piecemeal one district at a time, we need to talk about Wayne County.

"Spending $7.5 million at Eastern Wayne Middle School even (schools superintendent) Dr. (Steve) Taylor knows that is not a good deal. He wants to go along with it because he is afraid. Let's take the fear out of it. Let's take the fear out of the board of education and really sit down and tell them what we are going to do."

Bell said the decision was the school board's and Keen said it was not a matter of not wanting to talk about the issues.

"We have already discussed it. There is a plan," he said.

Keen said he sees the move as derailing the project, saying, "I see a train wreck."

Best said he suggested March 2 to ensure the county has enough time to make changes and still meet a deadline to apply for $15 million in federal bonds to pay for construction and renovations at Eastern Wayne and Norwayne middle schools.

Keen questioned what the meeting would focus on and said the meeting needed direction. Addressing his comments to Mrs. McCullen, who is an associate school superintendent, Keen said he also wanted to see data about children in larger middle schools.

"Are we going to talk about money or are we going to talk about kids," he said. "What is the real agenda? I look at the board of education and its heart and passion to be sensitive to teaching children. Money is not the issue, it is the kids. If we have this meeting, I would like the board of education to bring with it the logistics of teaching school."

Mrs. McCullen said the school board is talking about action on the school plan.

"We are poised to move on renovations at Norwayne and Eastern Wayne middle that were approved by this board of commissioners three years ago," she said. "Reluctantly, as I heard Mr. Best say. At its last meeting the board of education, it was announced that the board of education wanted to move ahead with these projects. I do not think a meeting is necessary."

She said it might be easier for a smaller group to meet, possibly on a committee level. However, Keen cautioned that the boards need to be careful that they comply with the state's Open Meetings Law.

Those meetings would be subject to that law, County Attorney Borden Parker said.

The agenda is where the county wants to be in 30 years, Best said.

Best argued against the Eastern Wayne project at the board's Feb. 1 session promoting the consolidation of that school with Greenwood Middle School. That suggestion failed to gain any board support.

"The majority of people that I am talking about, all of us, Dr. Taylor know that spending $7.5 million to put new classrooms at Eastern Wayne Middle School is not really a good use of our money, but what do we do?" Best said. "The school board does not really trust the board of commissioners and I really can't blame them."

Best said that looking back over the past six years it was difficult to imagine how many different school plans had been brought before commissioners.

He said that in a recent News-Argus article, school officials had said commissioners did not have a good track record when it comes to moving forward on school funding.

Best said commissioners had not bought into the plans because it is "all about spending money, not about being efficient."

"I don't blame the school board for not trusting us," he said. "We have not done a good job of communicating why very well that we are not buying into it. They have a plan that was reluctantly approved three years ago. I was personally against Eastern Wayne and Norwayne."

Best said he would love to build schools all over the county and that like it or not, the money is not there.

Building a school is the "cheap part," he said. The expense is operational costs over the life of the school. That is where officials have to look for efficiencies, he said.

The problems at Eastern Wayne aren't just the drainage issues that have generated the most comments, he added.

"If you want to give me a tummy tuck and a gold chain and let my hair grow out and get me a new convertible to drive around Goldsboro, I probably would look good," he said. "But this old body probably would be the same. I would look different, but be the same. The drainage is just one of the problems."

Best said County Manager Lee Smith thinks the county could save almost $1 million in operational costs by merging Greenwood and Eastern Wayne.

"That might not be the answer," he said. "That was just one suggestion."

Best questioned why teachers had to use their own money to buy school supplies.

"Just think what saving $1 million would do," he said. "We just need to sit down and reconsider what is the best in the long run, not just take what is on the table that is three years old. A lot has changed."

Anderson said he would like to see the county look closely at energy efficiency as a way to save money since energy prices will continue to increase in coming years.

The county needs to compare the energy efficiency of old schools and new ones, he said.