At the joint meeting of the Wayne County Board of Education and Board of Commissioners Wednesday, there was an "elephant in the room" as one school board member put it -- redistricting.
The topic came up after a presentation on the history of school funding by Kevin Leonard, executive director of the N.C. Association of County Commissioners. When discussion then turned to need for increased construction in the school district, school board member Raymond Smith Jr. was quick to point out that a commitment to redistricting is another way to handle school overcrowding
"Redrawing district lines is another way that we can address this issue, and nobody around this table is talking about that," he said. "That is something that we definitely have on the table, we do have classroom space in some of our schools that is not completely filled."
Smith's comment was followed by commissioner Joe Daughtery, who pressed the board to continue to work on redistricting.
After Wayne County Public Schools Superintendent Michael Dunsmore said in January that impending class-size legislation had delayed redistricting plans until it was resolved, and school board member Chris West later expressed doubts about the necessity and pace of the process, Daughtery asked the board if plans to redistrict had been done away with.
They have not, Smith assured him. The school board has never voted to formally cease redistricting work, and the class-size legislation issues were cleared up in changes to House Bill 90 earlier this month.
Daughtery said that the school board should look to take as much advantage of existing space as possible before looking at new construction.
"We now have a mandate to have 50 additional classrooms. Does it make sense for us to go out and build a classroom in a school that was built in 1930, because you know very shortly we're going to have to replace the school," he said, referring to Mount Olive Middle School. "We're hoping that we can find a way to maximize the use of these facilities without us having to go out and borrow another 10 or 12 million dollars."
Another option would be to bring in more modular classrooms, Daughtery said, but that is not an option anyone wants to go with.
"Let's find a way to get out of this with as little dollars spent so we don't have to raise the taxes," he said.
The school system is currently working on a pair of construction projects -- a new Meadow Lane Elementary and a set of 22 classrooms in the northern end of the county. In addition, Dunsmore said, there are plans to turn Wayne Middle/High Academy back into Goldsboro Middle School, which would then be able to accommodate around 600 students.
That alone would require some tweaks to district lines in order to populate the school.
Rick Pridgen, chairman of the school board's student assignment committee, said that small changes like that would precede full-county redistricting further down the line.
"When you talk to people in the county, they ask you 'are you going to redistrict my school or are you going to redistrict the whole county, what are you talking about?'
"To me, tweaking a line is adjusting the population within one school, redistricting the whole county is a whole different issue," he said. "We're not in a position to redistrict the whole county until we know that we're getting the optimal space by tweaking the lines in some of these schools and making sure we're not building buildings in the wrong place."
The school board's moratorium on student transfers will help make that picture even clearer, Pridgen said, by making it so students are attending school in the districts where they live. After another year of this -- the district is entering year two of the moratorium -- WCPS officials will begin to have a better idea of what the population levels in the schools actually are and will be able to plan construction projects and new countywide district lines accordingly.