Rolesville school site stirs patronage charges

Staff WritersJune 18, 2010 

A heated political fight is emerging over the proposed site for a new high school in Rolesville. Supporters call it a good deal, but opponents say choosing it would be an act of patronage. The Wake County school board agreed Tuesday to offer $4.3 million for 143.26 acres near the intersection of Rolesville and Quarry roads, $800,000 more than the assessed tax value of $3.5 million. School leaders say that the county tax value is far lower than the market value and that they're getting a very good price.

"It's a good opportunity to get the land at a cheap price and have it at the right site," said school board member Chris Malone, a member of the majority and chairman of the facilities committee.

But Wake County Commissioner Stan Norwalk and Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker say the site, tentatively being called Rolesville High School, is a poor location and hope the county commissioners will block the deal. Norwalk and Meeker want the school board to go back to the location it abandoned on Forestville Road near U.S. 401 in northeast Raleigh.

"It makes a lot more sense to put the high school where the students are and not at a remote site," Meeker said.

Meeker's wife, Anne McLaurin, was the only school board member who voted against buying the Rolesville site.

Rolesville Mayor Frank Eagles, who lobbied the school board to abandon the Forestville Road site, said Meeker and Norwalk are the ones playing politics. Eagles is backing the new site even though it's not one of the ones he suggested.

"He doesn't like it because Rolesville is standing up to him," Eagles said of Meeker. "He has to be King Charles, and he's not getting his way."

A hearing before the commissioners, who have to decide whether to approve the purchase, has been pushed from Monday to July 6.

Controversial choice

The Rolesville site is in play because the school board majority voted in February not to use the Forestville Road site, called Forest Ridge High. Majority members argued that Forest Ridge would produce so much traffic it would negatively affect the quality of life for people in the area.

The school staff is now backing way from the original estimate that abandoning Forest Ridge would lead to $15.4 million in additional costs. But they say changing sites could still delay the school's opening by two years to 2014.

Board members told staff to look at two sites in Rolesville proposed by Eagles.

During the negotiations with the owners of the two sites, Joe Desormeaux, the school system's assistant superintendent for facilities, said they learned about the property they eventually agreed to buy. That site is owned by St. Lawrence Homes, which bought the property in early 2007 for $4.73 million, or about $33,000 an acre.

St. Lawrence made a number of improvements to the land, including running a sewer line to the property, before it ran into financial trouble and was forced to declare bankruptcy early last year.

St. Lawrence has agreed to sell the land for $30,000 per acre. The site is large enough to accommodate both a new high school and a new elementary school. Rich Ohmann, a spokesman for St. Lawrence, said the sale price is a great win for the school system.

"This deal by no means makes St. Lawrence Homes any money," he said.

Desormeaux said $4.3 million is much closer to the land's actual value than the tax value. He said that the deal includes a provision allowing the school system to walk away if the appraised value is lower than $4.3 million.

Desormeaux said the site improvements such as utility access means there's a chance the school will open in 2013, a potential money-saver.

Additionally, Desormeaux said, the price is so low that they'll spend $4.5 million less on road improvements, site development and land costs than they would have at the Forest Ridge site.

Norwalk acknowledged that the school system is getting a "bargain basement fire sale price" for the property. But Norwalk said the low land price comes at the cost of putting the school so far away from many of its students that it goes against the school board majority's call for neighborhood schools.

Norwalk said building the school in Rolesville is a reward from the new school board majority to supporters such as Eagles. He said St. Lawrence is an innocent party in the fight.

"They're handing out patronage to people who support them," Norwalk said. "Others who didn't support them will have to wait until hell freezes over."

Malone, the member of the board majority, said it would be the commissioners who are engaging in politics if they reject the new site.

"Commissioners don't want to say to people 'We want to force you back to a bad location where safety is an issue,'" Malone said.

keung.hui@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4534

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