Wake school board reviews school building needs

$1B wish list for 2013 referendum renews talk about choice plan

khui@newsobserver.comAugust 7, 2012 

— A Wake County school board committee on Tuesday began the work of discussing what projects to include in a bond referendum next year that could seek more than $1 billion for renovations and new construction.

School facility staff presented a lengthy list of needs, including 24 new schools, major renovations to rebuild 12 schools and smaller renovations at 16 schools. That list is likely to shrink as the school board negotiates with the Wake Board of County Commissioners over the size of the bond issue.

One factor in how much the list is reduced will be whether the board sticks with its commitment to providing families a choice in schools.

Allowing choice means schools fill less efficiently than when students are directly assigned. Keeping choice will require more school buildings.

The board’s Democratic majority in June asked school administration staff to develop an assignment plan for the 2013-14 school year that would go back to tying each address to a specific school. But the majority also asked that an element of choice be preserved.

School board member Jim Martin, a Democrat, warned that it won’t be cheap providing choice.

“We need to have an adult conversation about whether the community is willing to pay to provide choice,” said Martin, a critic of the choice plan.

Administrators are supposed to present the new assignment model in September. But Martin and fellow Democratic member Susan Evans complained that it wasn’t until Tuesday that staff offered to discuss the status of the plan.

Evans said she agreed that choice should be part of the bond program in terms of providing families enough traditional-calendar options. She asked the school board’s facilities committee to discuss next month which underenrolled year-round schools might be considered for conversion to a traditional calendar.

But Evans said that choice shouldn’t be a higher priority than easing overcrowding and renovating schools.

Administrators say a major reason for another bond referendum is to keep up with student growth that could lead to a shortfall of nearly 20,000 seats in the 2016-17 school year.

Although the school district’s projections show an overall shortfall in high school seats four years from now, Martin noted that the data also projects high schools in eastern Wake County could have 1,952 more seats than needed.

“We’ve blamed a lot of things on busing,” Martin said. “But if we’re going to fill the seats, it’s going to take transportation.”

School board member Chris Malone, who supported the choice plan, said the situation could change in eastern Wake if growth picks back up soon.

Like the last bond issue approved by voters in 2006, the new one would likely mean raising property taxes.

One of the challenges that will face the school board is balancing how much money to spend on building new schools versus renovations.

The full school board will discuss the renovation projects next week.

“This is just the preliminary list,” said Don Haydon, the school system’s chief facilities and operations officer. “There’s still a lot of work to do.”

Hui: 919-829-4534

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