The Town Council approved Wake County Public Schools’ site plan for Apex Friendship Middle School Tuesday, but only after the school system compromised on some of the town’s infrastructure demands.
The unanimously approved site plan included all but one of the town’s conditions. The debate centered on road improvements and the need for equipment that town officials said are vital to school safety.
The debate, moderated as a quasi-judicial hearing and adjudicated by Mayor Lance Olive, dealt mainly with who should pay for the town’s conditions for the site plan. Councilwoman Denise Wilkie, a teacher at Apex High School, recused herself from the hearing.
The new 235,000-square-foot Apex Friendship Middle School is set to open for the 2018-19 school year, just east of Apex Friendship High School on Humie Olive Road, which opened in the fall. It’s expected to cost $51.2 million and accommodate 1,450 students, according to the school system.
The town had asked the school system to pay for nearby road improvements, which officials said would be required because of an increase in school traffic.
The town also asked for a bidirectional radio amplifier and repeater, which town technology specialist David Boggs estimated would cost $100,000.
Apex Police Chief John Letteney testified that the heavy brick and steel construction of most schools severely hinders officers’ radio signals and compromises emergency responders’ ability to communicate from within the school. He said the requested equipment would boost emergency responders’ radio signals in the building.
Apex initially asked the school system to pay for four right-turn lanes: one at the intersection of Evans and Apex Barbecue roads; two at the intersection of Humie-Olive Road and Blazing Trail Drive; and one at Humie-Olive and Richardson roads.
The council eventually agreed to strike the request at Humie-Olive and Blazing Trail because members said they couldn’t prove the cost of the improvement was proportional to the burden the new school site would bring to the intersection, as required by the town’s development ordinances.
The school system, represented by lawyer Kenneth Haywood, has encountered other discussions with area towns about infrastructure. The Town of Garner, in a November hearing also involving Haywood, imposed road improvement conditions on the site plan for Bryan Elementary School and found itself in a similar debate.
Haywood told the Apex Town Council that the school system already had agreed to pay for $625,000 of road improvements separate from the council’s requests, which he said would cost an additional $625,000.
“Because of the school system’s limited budget, we don’t believe Wake County Public Schools can be the solution for everyone else’s issues,” Haywood said. “People would like someone else to take responsibility for those problems, but the school system has limited funding for this particular school.”
The issue of the radio amplifier animated the council the most, with members in agreement that the school system should shoulder the costs of ensuring that emergency communications function within the building.
“To me, that’s a showstopper,” Councilman Gene Schulze said.
Haywood said because signal strength is generally weak in the area of the site plan, an amplifier within the building would do little to address the issue of signal strength. He said the county should look into the problem before the school system agrees to the expense of improving the signal at the school.
“If the signal is weak on the outside, then simply putting the receivers within the middle school doesn’t solve the problem for anybody,” he said.
Olive, who said he has experience as an amateur radio operator, said Haywood was incorrect.
“No offense, Mr. Haywood, but I think you stepped outside your expertise area when you talked about the signal outside versus inside the building,” he said.
Letteney further testified that the police officer assigned to adjacent Apex Friendship High School is forced to use his cell phone rather than his radio, which he said can be dangerously indirect and slow when backup is needed.
Both Letteney and mayor pro tem Nicole Dozier said signal loss is a known issue in schools around the state.
“There are people in the Wake County schools who know about this and have come to me to talk about it,” Dozier said. “I have been told it was an issue of cost rather than awareness.”
Schulze made a motion to deny the site plan, which was seconded by Councilman Wesley Moyer. After some discussion among the council members about whether to continue the hearing rather than deny the plan altogether, Haywood stood up and said the school system would withdraw its objections to paying for the radio equipment.
Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan