Plans for elementary debated

Addition isn't enough, some say

Staff WriterJune 21, 2006 

  • Johnston school board member Donna White proposes to finance a new elementary school, estimated at $13.5 million, largely by taking money allocated for other projects:

    $2.2 MILLION: Bond money already allocated for a 12-classroom addition at East Clayton;

    $3.3 MILLION: Bond money for a new gym at Smithfield-Selma High;

    $4 MILLION: From a fund for school technology;

    $250,000: Leftover money from air-conditioning and paving projects;

    $3.75 MILLION: Loan from the county, which would recoup it after the next bond issue or with lottery money.

— Despite its sterling reputation, East Clayton Elementary has its horror stories -- classes taught in closets, students trudging through puddles to 20 classroom trailers, lunches that start at 10:40 a.m.

With more than 1,000 students being taught in a building meant for 750, it is the most crowded school in fast-growing Johnston County.

The school is scheduled to open a 12-classroom addition in 2007. But a movement has begun to build a new school instead to relieve overcrowding.

The parents who are pushing for a new school have found an ally in school board member Donna White, who wants to postpone other projects from the $85 million bond issue that voters approved last year so that money can go toward construction. The school's cost was estimated at $13.5 million. Some county commissioners say the county might help pay for it.

East Clayton PTA President Jeff Jennings asked the school board last week to consider building a school instead of the extra classrooms, which he called "a Band-Aid on a festering problem."

"It will not eliminate mobile units or give us all the classes needed," he said of the addition. "It will negatively affect the recess areas and playground. Our media center, cafeteria and physical education areas will be pushed beyond their limits."

But White's plan to pay for the project has generated some opposition. Her proposal would push back other projects, notably a new gym at Smithfield-Selma High School. A joint project with the town of Smithfield, the gym would have a pool, racquetball courts and community space that the school would share with Smithfield residents.

Smithfield planners, though, say the gym is proceeding on schedule. "We're full speed ahead," said Clayton Narron, a Smithfield Town Council member and parent who has worked on the gym plan. "All I can say is they better have some money when it comes time."

School board member Kay Carroll said changing the bond plan would erode support for future bonds. The bond plan that voters approved, he said, included new schools and renovations in all areas of the county.

"If you do this, you have communities going, 'Why am I going to vote for somebody else to get something when they can jump right over me?' " he said.

Carroll suggested that the county build the school using reserve funds and recoup it after the next bond referendum.

"That's a better remedy for a crisis situation than playing Scrabble with bond issues that have passed and projects that have been promised to people," Carroll said.

A new elementary school that would pull students from East Clayton is planned for a bond referendum that could go to voters next year. Any projects that are postponed would be included in that bond issue instead of the school.

White said she proposed the plan to prompt a discussion on which projects could be postponed.

"I don't want to take anything away that's been promised to another community," White said. "I just see a situation where hundreds of children are going to a school that doesn't have room for them."

County Commissioner Wade Stewart said that if the schools could postpone enough bond projects to free up about $9 million, he would push the county to fund the remaining $4.5 million it would take to build the school, either by lending it to the district until the next bond referendum or by spending lottery money when it becomes available.

He said the county might be able to move up the bond sales to build the school before the Smithfield project starts.

"Which should take priority?" Stewart asked. "[Students]need to be in a proper classroom setting."

Commissioner Allen Mims said he would support the move, as long as Smithfield wasn't ready to start building the gym.

"If ... they can't do the project until Smithfield is ready, then you might as well put the money somewhere else," Mims said. "You've got to think outside the box and be flexible."

East Clayton principal Peggy Smith said she doesn't think the classroom addition is feasible. The school sits on a low-lying plot of land near the Neuse River and sometimes floods. But she said she fears that finger-pointing between the school board and county commissioners would jeopardize the momentum for a new school.

"Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we are beyond full," she said. "I don't want the quantity of students to erode quality of their education."

Staff writer Marti Maguire can be reached at 829-4841 or mmaguire@newsobserver.com.

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