Town council ultimately approved the annexation, zoning and site plan for the future South Garner High School so the district can meet a tight construction schedule – but not before spending hours giving school system representatives a hard time.
During a public hearing, residents complained about traffic concerns near the school to be located at Hebron Church and New Bethel Church roads, and those worries were echoed by elected officials. In addition, council members asked a variety of questions and at times laid into schools facilities head Joe Desormeaux and other Wake County Public School System staff and consultants.
Among other issues, the council brought up long-standing assignment concerns, particularly Garner students having to leave the area to attend middle school. The town complained about the decision to include plans for a new elementary but not a new middle school in Garner. Town leaders have argued Garner needs the latter more.
“Our middle school students are being shipped out and there’s no relief in sight,” said Councilman Buck Kennedy, who along with Gra Singleton provided the harshest critiques.
Though betraying frustrations, councilors ultimately relented and agreed to allow the school. They compromised on conditions they wanted to place on the site-plan approval; Singleton and Kennedy lost a council vote to add a condition to have WCPSS pay half the cost of the school’s school resource officer even though they had been told the condition was a non-starter for multiple reasons.
Earlier in the meeting, Kennedy told school officials that it was not despite the town’s limited influence over WCPSS that council members were using the hearing to air a variety of grievances, but because of it.
“The town has absolutely no statutory authority regarding the way schools are operated. We don’t have any say-so or standing on assignment,” Kennedy admitted. “We can have some say-so only on rough-handed tactics on where schools are built.”
After listing off a number of concerns, Singleton bluntly asked Desormeaux: “Tell me why you want to be annexed.”
“Nice question,” Desormeaux said after a pause. “We want water and sewer.”
WCPSS plans to have the new school ready to take in Garner Magnet High students in the fall of 2016 to allow $67 million in renovations to that school before opening to ninth and tenth graders of a new school in the fall of 2017.
The new high school raised the question of what a new high school culture would look like in a town accustomed to rallying around one school. Kennedy iraised the hope that the population of the new school would include predominantly Garner-area students.
Desormeaux said assignment policy reflected four goals: proximity, operational efficiency, stability and achievement. Kennedy said: “it almost stands up and declares, let’s have some home cooking...Is it wrong for us to assume those criteria favor the Garner service area being the primary service population?”
“I think that’s a fair description,” Desormeaux said.
The core question of who would attend South Garner morphed into a conversation about current assignment patterns. Kennedy said school quality and assignment of students directly impacts people moving into Garner and therefore the local economy.
In particular Singleton noted that Garner had not had a new middle school since he graduated from Garner High in 1980.
To illustrate the middle school need, Kennedy laid out some rough math: that seven Garner elementary schools, with about 600 students, totaled 4,200 students before building the proposed new school, while two 1,200-student middle schools housed 2,400.
Desormeaux noted that there were twice as many grades in elementary school so the math actually was proportional, but after conceding that point Kennedy pointed out that the 2,400 middle school seats did not balance with what would be roughly 4,800 high school slots once a new high school opened.
In addition, Kennedy and Singleton complained that the middle schools were bursting at the seams especially with East Garner’s magnet status drawing out-of-town students.
“I think Garner will be more successful if we were able to have some of that home cooking,” Kennedy said.
Desormeaux expressed sympathy with the desire for a middle school, which would cost about twice as much as an elementary school. He noted that the district had pared 32 school construction projects it deemed necessary to keep up with growth to 16 to be included on the October school bond referendum.
Councilwoman Kathy Behringer expressed some sympathy, but said Garner had been passed over enough times and that the middle school issue should be re-examined.
“We understand that. There’s never enough money to go around,” Behringer said. “But (capital investment in Garner schools) are past due.”
Kennedy made a similar statement: “It’s been a long time coming. You need to feel our angst at that.”
Council debated adding a number of conditions for the conditional use permit to those already suggested by town staff.
Other conditions include completing a traffic study to ensure the intersection at White Oak and Hebron Church road doesn’t decrease in service to the point it needs a stoplight, though NCDOT projects an F-graded level of service already.
If a signal is warranted at Hebron Church road and either White Oak or Ackerman, the schools and the town would split the costs. Initially the town wanted WCPSS to bear the costs, but Desormeaux objected on the basis that future development traffic increases would be indistinguishable from school traffic.
Other questions included stadium seating and parking for football games, as well as concern over a utility pipe being smaller than needed.
Kennedy said the council’s intent wasn’t to be hostile to WCPSS, but to be heard since council was “pretty much at your mercy.”
“I hope you understand and can be as helpful as you can to allay our concerns so we can go forward,” Kennedy said. This isn’t the last time a school will be built in Garner, so we don’t need to scare you off and make us feel good for one night.”