06/12/13 — Commissioners talk about schools, suggest combining grade levels

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Commissioners talk about schools, suggest combining grade levels

By Steve Herring
Published in News on June 12, 2013 1:46 PM

The nearly $900,000 in additional annual recurring operational costs associated with maintaining a proposed $17.6 million Grantham Middle School Monday had Wayne County commissioners questioning whether or not a K-8 school might not be a better idea.

Commissioners also suggested that a classroom inventory be taken before any new schools are built.

The Wayne County Board of Education has asked commissioners to fund half of $12,320,463 for projects at Charles B. Aycock High, Spring Creek Elementary and central attendance area schools. The plan also includes borrowing $17,689,840 for a new Grantham Middle School for fifth through eighth grades.

"Well, they can't borrow money," County Manager Lee Smith told commissioners during their nine-hour budget workshop Monday. "So they can't pursue borrowing money. They can give you the cost and the county has to pursue borrowing funds of $17.6 million."

The proposal replaces the school's board's original budget request for $3,430,000 from the county, which was not included in the county's budget proposal for 2013-14.

Counties have realized they can no longer afford to build schools for 600 students, Commissioner Joe Daughtery said during the budget workshop. More and more school systems are looking at schools that include pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, he said.

The schools can be constructed in such a way as to limit the interaction of the younger and older students, Daughtery said, allowing for more efficient use of space and larger facilities like gyms and media centers.

If done as proposed, the county would have a school on the old site and one on the new site, Smith said.

That prompted Daughtery to question the reoccurring operating cost of the schools. The school board has dropped the estimate from $1.6 million to $880,000 annually, Smith said.

"That is half," Smith said. "That is a big difference, and I questioned it. They detail that out. I am not saying that they are wrong or that they are right. We have got to confirm that because when the Davenport plan comes back, when they give this assumption sheet, I can go, 'OK what does that do to current expense -- new Grantham or new Spring Creek?'"

Smith was referring to Davenport & Co., a consulting firm the county uses to help develop capital improvement projects.

"That is my concern, that under this plan currently we have a K through eight at Grantham," Daughtery said. "If we build a school for five through eight, then local government is going to have to pick up that (operational) cost on a recurring basis. Whatever it is, we are going to have to pick up that cost. If you replace school for school, then you do not have this (additional) recurring cost on local government.

"We have got to find a way to get the school, but at the same time not add to the burden on local taxpayers."

Daughtery said he also has been exploring using a private contractor to build and then lease a school back to the county. That allows for construction of energy-efficient buildings that utilize solar power to run the school or even to sell electricity to power companies, he said.

A private company qualifies for energy tax credits, whereas a government entity cannot, Daughtery said. Those savings can be passed onto the county through lower lease costs, he said.

"I think we need to explore that route," Daughtery said. "I am not saying go that route, but at least explore it before we make some commitments."

Commissioner Wayne Aycock said he was concerned that Grantham School was built in 1922. Commissioner Ed Cromartie said he would like to hear from the Grantham community concerning one building.

"My question is what I would like to see done is for somebody to do an inventory," Commissioner John Bell said. "For example, the former Goldsboro Middle School has a hundred and some students over there. We have less students in Wayne County than we did seven or eight years ago. So I would like to see somebody take a look at what you have got and do some consolidation rather than just spend money.

"I am all for building, if that is what we need, but we have practically a brand new school sitting over there, the former Goldsboro Middle School, with 135 students."

Bell said he knew commissioners didn't want to talk that way because people pick up on it and say commissioners are trying to run the schools.

That is not the case, he said.

"We will build a school wherever they want it built," he said. "I am just saying let's use some common sense and take an inventory of how many open spaces we have and see where we can bring stuff together. If we have less students than we had five or 10 years ago then where is the need?"

Chairman Steve Keen said he agreed.

The county still has to maintain a school that could be 50 percent vacant and cannot afford it, Keen said,

Commissioners were to have continued their budget discussions this Friday. However, that meeting has been canceled and rescheduled for Monday at 8 a.m. in the commissioners' meeting room on the fourth floor of the county courthouse annex. The meeting is open to the public.