Wake County opening its biggest and most expensive high school

khui@newsobserver.comAugust 24, 2013 

  • Bond vote approaches

    Wake County voters go to the polls Oct. 8 to vote on an $810 million bond issue that would allow the county to borrow money to build and renovate schools and stock them with modern technology.

    The plan was proposed by the county board of education and approved by the board of commissioners. It would result in an increase in county property taxes; the owner of a home assessed for taxes at $260,000 would pay about an additional $145 a year.

    Today’s story, focused on the new Rolesville High School, is part of a series of reports that will examine the result of the county’s method of school funding. We’ll also look at proposed alternatives for paying for school construction and organized efforts for and against the bond proposal.

On Monday, the biggest and most expensive high school in Wake County history – possibly in state history – will open for classes.

With a budget of $75 million, the 349,000-square-foot Rolesville High School dwarfs all prior construction projects in Wake County school history. It’s both the first four-story high school in Wake and the first designed from scratch to hold more than 2,200 students. It also incorporates design features not previously used in the district’s construction plans.

“When I walk into this building every day I am thinking I feel blessed knowing that our kids are coming into a place they’re comfortable with,” said Ericka Lucas, the school’s principal.

Wake school leaders tout Rolesville High as a state-of-the-art school designed to meet high school education needs for the 21st century.

But critics question whether the cost of the school and other Wake construction projects are too high. Others worry if building a school that can hold 2,262 students – and far more than that when trailers are added in the future – is conducive to learning.

“Just because you put a big price tag on something doesn’t mean we’re getting the biggest bang for the buck,” said Donna Williams, chairwoman of the Wake County Republican Party, which announced last week that it would oppose this fall’s school bond referendum.

Voters will have their say on Oct. 8 when they decide on the $810 million plan, which would pay for most of a $939.9 million construction program. Among the projects that would be funded are two other new four-story high schools that would accommodate more than 2,200 students, each with price tags nearing $70 million.

Approval would keep the projects moving forward, while defeat could force Wake to scale back or delay building the new high schools.

There’s little argument that the county eventually will have to build new schools. The Wake school district now counts 21,000 additional students since the last bond referendum in 2006. Already the 16th-largest school district in the nation, Wake is projected to have 152,684 students this fall, nearly 3,200 more than last year.

‘It’s not ideal’

The start of a new school year Monday for traditional-calendar schools across North Carolina also marks the debut of Wake’s 28th high school. But Rolesville High School’s shape dates back to the last referendum, when voters agreed to borrow $970 million.

As part of the 2006 construction program, school leaders agreed to go from building 1,600-student high schools to ones designed from the start to hold more than 2,200 schools. They pointed out that many Wake high schools were already holding more than 2,000 students after cramming them into classrooms and trailers. Some Wake high school campuses now hold more than 2,500 students.

But Wake’s school sizes are going up at a time when many educators argue that smaller schools are better for high school students,

Advocates for Children’s Services, a project of Legal Aid of North Carolina, questioned Wake’s school sizes in a report last week that was critical of the district’s student discipline policies. The report said “research consistently shows that small schools are better positioned to promote student achievement, deter misbehavior and increase positive student involvement in school.”

The report pointed to how 15 Wake high schools in the 2011-12 school year had more than 1,900 students, larger than the enrollments in 14 North Carolina school districts. The report said Wake’s high schools were 92 percent larger than the state average.

“Most (Wake) schools have too many students and are much larger than what extensive research has shown to be optimal school size,” according to the report.

But school board Chairman Keith Sutton said it’s more efficient to build big high schools at a time when enrollment in North Carolina’s largest school district is growing by 3,000 students a year. To build smaller schools, he says, the county would have to build many more schools, which would cost even more.

“Educationally, it’s not ideal,” Sutton said of Wake’s large high school sizes. “Smaller schools are more effective educationally. But when you’ve got a community that’s growing at the pace of Wake County, you need to spend more to build schools.”

School board member Kevin Hill was a teacher and principal at Wake high schools that used trailers to hold more than 2,000 students. He said he much prefers having all 2,200 students under one roof for safety and other reasons rather than having them spread out all over the campus.

“I know some of my colleagues want to build smaller schools,” he said. “But with the reality of our numbers, I think a 2,200-student building is a good size.”

Working in pods

School planners said they recognized the challenges of educating students in such a large school when they set out to develop a new design for Rolesville High.

The building features walls of floor-to-ceiling windows that bring in more daylight and look out on courtyards at the front and rear of the school. A gymnasium and auditorium are located in a wing on the school’s first floor, and the cafeteria is divided into four units, with one located on each floor of the school.

The separate cafeterias are part of the unusual design to convert the school into 16 separate pods, called small learning communities. This is new in Wake; each pod consists of a group of five classrooms where students will spend at least part of the day with the same group of classmates.

To promote working in projects and groups, there are no hallways. The classrooms open into common areas where students can work, including the individual cafeterias that in the past would see little use beyond serving meals.

“What we’re trying to do is to make sure there’s at least one or two people in the school that know every student very well,” said Lucas, the principal.

At last week’s open house, the school drew raves.

“I’m excited that it’s new, and it doesn’t have a reputation yet,” said Ashley Kress, 14, an incoming 9th grader and graduate of Wendell Middle School.

Math teacher Lauren Winstead marveled at how fortunate she was to start her first teaching job in a new school with the latest features.

“I really couldn’t have asked for a bigger blessing,” she said.

Tinkering with designs

All these features come with a record price of more than $70 million, which school officials say was within budget, though it cost more than they would have liked. The two high schools in the fall bond use a different design than Rolesville High that doesn’t incorporate features such as the separate cafeterias.

“We were concerned about the price for Rolesville High and we asked what other prototypes could be used,” said Joe Desormeaux, the school system’s assistant superintendent for facilities.

Desormeaux said school officials plan to reuse the Rolesville High design in the future but would try to do it for less, potentially making changes such as having fewer windows and using less steel and more masonry.

Several Wake County commissioners had questioned the high school costs while the bond issue was being developed.

“That’s a lot of money compared to the prices of other high schools in the state,” said Joe Bryan, chairman of the Wake board of commissioners. “These are not immaterial questions.”

For example, in 2011, Gaston County started work on a $38.6 million high school to hold 1,500 students. That price appears to exclude some costs that are included in the $75 million cost of Rolesville High.

But Bryan said questions about costs are not a reason to vote against the bonds. He said commissioners may try again next year to ask the state legislature to pass a bill turning over authority for school construction from the school board to the county.

Tony Pecoraro, vice president for external affairs for the Wake County Taxpayers Association, said questions about costs are a legitimate reason to oppose the bond. He said Wake should look to emulate other districts that build schools cheaper.

But Desormeaux said that critics look at the price tag and don’t take into account that part of the higher cost comes from Wake building bigger schools. For instance, other districts are building high schools designed to hold 1,500 or fewer students.

“People don’t realize there are bigger schools here,” Desormeaux said. “Even the elementary schools serve more students than the other districts. It’s not gold-plated stuff we’re building.”

Staff writer Sarah Barr contributed to this report.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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