Johnston County voters could be asked this fall to borrow $133 million to build a new high school and elementary school in the fast-growing western part of the county.
The school board has made the request to county commissioners, who will decide the details of a bond referendum on the November ballot. County leaders say they want to meet the school system's needs without raising the property tax rate.
“We’re growing a school a year,” said Mike Wooten, chairman of the Johnston County school board. “We are blessed to be in a county that’s growing, but we are growing faster than we can build schools."
Johnston County was the third fastest-growing county in North Carolina last year, at 2.94 percent. Its growth outpaced that of Wake County, which was ninth at 2.2 percent.
Twenty-six percent of new Johnston County residents between 2010 and 2016 were under the age of 18, according to the Operations Research and Education Laboratory at N.C. State University. The Johnston school system, which has 47 schools and enrolls more than 36,000 students, gained 1,300 new children this school year.
Much of the growth is happening in western Johnston, which borders Wake. School leaders say a new high school and a new elementary school are needed in that area, although land has not been purchased.
Money borrowed through the bond would also fund expansions at two existing schools: Archer Lodge Middle near Clayton and Four Oaks Middle, in southern Johnston County.
The school board hired a private firm to conduct an in-depth assessment of renovation needs at existing schools. A second study was conducted in partnership with N.C. State researchers to look at growth patterns.
“We’ve not had growth like this at one time, ever,” said Dolores Gill, chief of staff for Johnston County schools. “Everybody agrees we need to continue to build schools. Right now we’re in the final leg of the process to get the bond on the ballot in November, and then we need community support.”
The studies cite a total of $207 million in renovation and new construction needs, but school board members say they will only ask for money to cover “immediate needs.”
This year, 16 county schools are over capacity, with more than 2,500 students attending classes in 191 mobile classroom units. By 2027, officials estimate that more than 28 schools will be over capacity.
“We cannot afford to wait,” board member Peggy Smith said in a recent email. “It is a fast-growing district. While I do not want a tax increase any more than anyone else, we must put our economic driver — schools — first.”
Johnston County voters have been willing in the past to borrow money for school construction. The county has had five bond referendums since 1999, most of which were for the school system and passed by a 3-to-1 margin. Voters agreed in 2013 to borrow $57 million for the school system and $7 million for Johnston Community College.
Last year, county commissioners borrowed $30 million on behalf of the school district to renovate and repair older schools.
“Success in public education depends directly on the resources and quality teachers that promote learning,” said Wooten, the school board chairman. “The ultimate decision-makers are the taxpayers. They need to know what the needs are and then we’ll do the best we can with the money provided.”
County commissioner Larry Wood said he wants to help the schools but he would be opposed to raising taxes.
The property tax rate in Johnston County, home to nearly 200,000 people, is 78 cents per $100 valuation. That's among the highest in the Triangle — Wake, which has more than 1 million people, has a property tax rate of 61.5 cents.
“There’s nothing I want more than for (schools) to be safe and clean and an environment where students can learn, but you can’t give the farm away,” Wood said. “You have to be frugal and responsible with people’s money. We think we’re heading in the right direction but we can’t do it all in one day or one year.”
County Manager Rick Hester said officials would likely make budget cuts elsewhere if voters approve the referendum. Commissioners are expected to decide in May how much the bond will be.
“Everybody wants the same thing,” Hester said. “Everybody wants to do what’s best and have the facilities that we need. It’s just a matter of how much we can do at a time.”