06/27/13 — County sets plan for school construction

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County sets plan for school construction

By Steve Herring
Published in News on June 27, 2013 1:46 PM

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Grantham Elementary School is seen early today. The Wayne County Board of Commissioners and the county Board of Education have opposing views of how to expand the school, with commissioners calling for a new school that would house students in grades K-8 and the school board saying the elementary and middle grades should be on separate campuses.

Wayne County's commissioners have offered up their own vision for a new Grantham School -- in contrast to what the county's school board and some members of the community have recommended.

And they want the school system to cut its Central Office staff and costs by $500,000 to pay for it.

Commissioners Joe Daughtery, Steve Keen, Bill Pate, Wayne Aycock and Ray Mayo proposed a $30 million K-8 Grantham School as part of a nearly $258 million capital improvement plan adopted in a 5-2 vote Tuesday afternoon. Commissioners John Bell and Ed Cromartie voted against the measure.

Board Chairman Keen even passed out a possible design for the new school, saying that he and Daughtery had recently visited Riverwood Elementary and Middle schools near Clayton. The schools use a design that has elementary and middle schools on the same campus but separated by a wide parking lot.

Adoption of the capital improvement plan does not commit the county to do all, or any of the projects. Nor does it commit any money, the commissioners said.

The projects would be paid for through a mixture of cash and financing, possibly including a bond referendum or new quarter-cent sales tax.

The plan could require up to almost a 13-cent tax increase over the next seven years should the county do all of the projects. The approval came shortly after commissioners adopted the 2013-14 budget that reduced the property tax rate by 3.6 cents.

Bell and Cromartie, the lone Democrats on the board, questioned whether the commission should be telling the school board what to do with school construction, saying the action could harm the relationship between the two boards.

The school board has asked the county for a new $16.7 million middle school at Grantham -- something that school supporters championed at last week's budget public hearing.

Those speakers included parent Susan Long, a 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."

However, commissioners contend that it is a matter of sustainability -- building new schools adds approximately $1 million in annual operating costs. The existing Grantham School would be closed once the K-8 school opens.

Commissioners want the new Grantham School moved up from fiscal year 2015-16 to 2014-15 along with a $3 million project to provide a sewer line to the school on a new 48-acre location on U.S. 13. They even hinted at a future high school on the site.

Also, moving those projects up a year would have them under way along with several other schools projects: $1.87 million for central attendance area schools; $3.85 million for Spring Creek Elementary School; and $6.6 million for Charles B. Aycock High School.

Cromartie questioned why commissioners had not heard the capital improvement plan presentation prior to voting on the budget, particularly in light of the lowered tax rate, which he said would be erased if the facilities plan is implemented.

Daughtery said the budget downsized government "just a bit" to position the county for future capital needs. The board will have to work to minimize the tax impact by ensuring the efficient use of facilities, he said.

"That may mean we are going to have to insist on merging a school, closing a school because we just cannot continue to add new buildings and operate those because that will raise our tax rate," he said. "We have got to make some tough decisions, or we are going to have to raise taxes."

That means the county might have to look at consolidating schools to build schools where the population is growing in the northern part of the county, Daughtery said.

Cromartie said he was "not privy to all of the meetings that take place around town." He asked Daughtery if he had spoken with any board members about schools that might be getting ready to close or consolidate.

Daughtery said that he had not.

"The next question to be asked, the plan, if adopted, can be modified and changed as time goes on, is that correct?" Daughtery said. "It is almost like a living document."

It is a guide, County Manager Lee Smith said.

"You are not obligating the dollars," Smith said. "You are not saying, 'We will do this.' We are saying, 'We are examining it.' It is a blueprint."

"This is our plan," Keen said. "This is the commissioners' plan. I have to ask that to legal counsel. This is our plan. This is not the plan for the Board of Education and any way we go forward it is our plan."

That is "correct," County Attorney Borden Parker said. "But the Board of Education is going to have to agree with your plan," Parker said.

Daughtery then offered a motion to adopt the plan. Before the vote, Keen offered an amendment to move the new Grantham School and sewer line up a year on the plan's timeline. The motions were approved 5-2, with Bell and Cromartie voting no.

"That is not in concert with what the school system was asking for," Cromartie said. "So the answer is the school system is onboard with a K-8?"

What the school board wanted is in an alternate capital improvement plan, Smith said. Smith said he has spoken with schools Superintendent Dr. Steve Taylor.

"If I hear you right, we are pushing for, this board feels like the best thing for them is a K-8 school and the school system feels like the best thing is to have the middle school in one place and the elementary in another?" Cromartie said. "So if we approve this today we are superseding what they want. We are making that decision for them."

"You are suggesting, not making it for them," Parker said.

Cromartie suggested that the plan be tabled until staff leadership from the county meet with its counterparts in the school system. Commissioner Bill Pate responded that he had sat in the audience watching commissioners for a year prior to his election in November.

Pate said that during that time he had heard such a suggestion several times, but nothing had ever materialized.

Daughtery said he had read an earlier study prepared by Evergreen Solutions in which consultants said that the school system needed to cut its executive administrative cost by nearly $500,000.

Daughtery followed his comments by adding an amendment to the original motion that the central office staff and overhead be cut by $500,000 a year "to help pay" for this additional school that were are going to take on."

It was approved 5-2, with Bell and Cromartie voting no.

No discussion was held about what the county would do if the school board refused to comply with the Grantham plan and the order to cut administrative costs.