06/19/13 — Grantham School and arts dominate hearing

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Grantham School and arts dominate hearing

By Steve Herring
Published in News on June 19, 2013 1:46 PM

The majority of speakers at Tuesday morning's public hearing on Wayne County's $161 budget proposal didn't appear interested in the total or even the tax rate.

However, neither of the two issues they were interested in -- a new Grantham Middle School and continued support for the Arts Council of Wayne County -- are in the $161 million proposal.

Eight of the 17 people who spoke lobbied for the new school, while five sought to convince Wayne County commissioners not to forget the Arts Council.

Also, the majority of the nearly 50 people in the audience were either at the meeting for the school or Arts Council.

Wayne County GOP Chairman Bob Jackson praised the board for its work.

He spoke again during the public comments section of the meeting when he urged them to stay the course.

"You have made certain promises to the people who put you where you are," he said. "I would say that if they did not like what you say that you would probably not be where you are at. Honor those promises and do everything that you can to lower the (tax) rates."

For Erin Alemdar the $25,000 requested by the Arts Council, but not included in the budget, is personal.

"It is personal because the recommended budget cut of $25,000 is a job," said Ms. Alemdar, the Arts Council gallery director. "It is my job basically. It is not just about that. The $25,000, it's coming from the government, it is a way that we can say we have the county's support, they believe in us.

"Then we can go and leverage that when we go out and try to get supporters from around the community, local businesses."

Ms. Alemdar, 22, said she wanted Wayne County to be a place where people her age would come and live. It is about quality of life, she said.

"People don't want to live in a place where there is nothing to do," she said. "People don't want to live where they have to drive to Raleigh to go to an arts event. Or they don't want to live in a place where their kids can't take art classes."

Arts Council Executive Director Sarah Merritt, board member Al Peterson, Latisha Banks, office manager, and supporter Anita Shreenath also urged commissioners to continue their support of the Arts Council.

Ms. Merritt said she believes the arts can play a vital role in the growth and vitality of the community.

"No business or individual wants to locate where there is no quality of life," she said. "A business wants quality of life for employees. A family wants things to do for their children and adults outside work and school. These things are vital to a healthy community."

Also, people already in the county want things to do without having to drive to Raleigh or Wilmington, she said.

Ms. Merritt spoke about the sale of the old Arts Council building and the agency's move to downtown.

"I have heard that there is concern the Arts Council has a bank account, and we are actually financially stable," she said. "What I can say to you is that the funds that we received from the sale of that building we invested, and we restricted so that in a few years we will have the opportunity to purchase the building that we are currently leasing and poise ourselves for even more growth and our ability to serve our citizens in this community with more free programs that are accessible to everyone."

Commissioners did not respond to the comments, but later in the meeting Commissioner Joe Daughtery alluded to those savings.

Daughtery said that agencies with fund balances should spend them before commissioners provide any funding.

The Wayne County Board of Education has asked commissioners to fund half of $12,320,463 for projects at Charles B. Aycock High School, Spring Creek Elementary School and central attendance area schools.

The plan also includes borrowing $17,689,840 for a new Grantham Middle School for grades five through eight.

And while Grantham School supporters argued for a middle school, commissioners later in the meeting seemed to prefer a K-8 school on a new site.

It is, they said, an issue of sustainability. Building a new middle school, while continuing to use the existing facility as an elementary school, would add close to a million dollars in annual operating costs, they said.

During the hearing, teachers, parents and grandparents said that Grantham had been placed on the back burner for a long time and that they had waited patiently for a new school.

Susan Long told commissioners she was speaking as a parent and kindergarten teacher at the school.

"I am not asking for a K-8 school," she said. "We need a separate facility for middle school. We are the only K-8 school in the county, and we are crowded. Parents have expressed concerns about 5-year-olds being with 14-year-old children on the same campus.

"We have a facility at the current location that was built in the '20s that is in very bad condition. A lot of children and staff members have had health issues that are related to the condition of the building."

Also, moving the middle school would allow Grantham to add a pre-kindergarten program, she said. Currently, Grantham is the only county school without such a program, she said.

That means some children, who have not had a previous educational experience, start school behind, something that is difficult to overcome, she said.

Ethel Britt of Mount Olive said she has two grandchildren at Grantham School. She said the time has come to do something regarding the school.

Jamie Cox is the music and choral teacher at the school.

"It is difficult to teach in a building that is infested with flying roaches, mice; we have had beehives," she said. "I want to talk about the gym a little bit that is our performance arena for all of my students."

Ms. Cox said she has had students pass out in the gym because of the heat in the non-air conditioned facility.

Literacy Connections Director Pat Yates said she had followed the board's instructions of only asking for what was needed.

Wayne County has the lowest literacy rates in the area, she said. One in 10 adults in the county cannot read and one in four read below a third-grade level, she said.

"This has tremendous implication for every aspect of our life, including the fact that it reduces, on an average year, our county revenue by about $45 million," Ms. Yates said. "It cost our industrial and others employers over $3 million in cost to remediate workers who cannot read."

Cutting the request from $111,000 to $90,000 in the original budget proposal will mean a staffing cut, she said.

"I would have to cap my services, which would mean I would tell residents of Wayne County who ask me to help them read to go home," she said.

During a budget workshop last week, Commissioner Joe Daughtery suggested the $90,000 be cut even further to $75,000.

Neal Bartlett spoke on behalf of funding the Old Waynesborough Commission. The budget proposal reduced the request from $40,000 to $35,000.