At least three new Wake County schools could be fast-tracked for opening to help deal with growth and overcrowding, but school leaders still must decide which ones will get the nod.
The board is considering allocating money now to soon begin design work for a new high school in Fuquay-Varina, new middle schools in Cary and Garner and new elementary schools in Fuquay-Varina and Holly Springs. But as school leaders reviewed the options Wednesday, they faced questions about whether less affluent areas should get a boost over more well-off communities and how to decide between communities with equally strong needs.
“It’s just like ‘Sophie’s Choice,’” said school board Chairwoman Christine Kushner, in reference to William Styron’s 1979 novel, in which the title character must make a devastating choice.
Wake is in the middle of a $990 million school construction program that’s largely being funded by an $810 million bond referendum approved by voters in 2013. The bond issue included some money to start designing new schools that would be built using funding that could come from a referendum on the 2016 ballot
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The school board is scheduled to vote Tuesday on which new schools get the design money, and will likely be the first constructed in the next building program. District administrators will recommend one new elementary school and one new high school while also determining whether funding is available for both the Cary and Garner middle schools or just one.
Any of the schools not picked for fast-tracking next week will still be part of the next building program, school leaders said.
School and county facilities staff have been laying the groundwork for a new school-construction program that could exceed $1 billion. Wake’s school building programs have traditionally been largely funded by obtaining voter backing for borrowing.
But it’s unclear whether the Wake County Board of Commissioners will put a school construction bond referendum on the ballot in 2016 or seek some other means for borrowing the money. David Neter, the school system’s chief business officer, said he and Superintendent Jim Merrill will begin holding a series of meetings on funding with Wake County Manager Jim Hartmann and Deputy County Manager Johnna Rogers.
Some choices are easy. Administrators said they are in a position to start design work on only one high school and that is the one that would occupy a site in Fuquay-Varina.
The plan is to open the building for the 2019-20 school year so that Fuquay-Varina High School students can temporarily relocate there while their campus is renovated. The following school year, the new high school would officially open and help to relieve crowding at Fuquay-Varina High.
There’s also design money to start work on either a new elementary school in Fuquay-Varina near the new high school or a new elementary school in southern Holly Springs that would open in 2018. Staff recommended considering those two choices over a new elementary school near Apex-Friendship High School because of crowding around the three new schools.
But the decision was more challenging on which of the middle schools to start first to open in 2019. The choices are a new school in northwest Cary near Alston Ridge Elementary, the new Bryan Road Middle School in Garner or a new middle school in Fuquay-Varina.
Facilities staff said Wednesday they’re leaning toward the new middle school in Cary because of school crowding in that part of the county.
“This was a tough recommendation,” said Joe Desormeaux, assistant superintendent for facilities.
School board member Susan Evans pointed to the crowding at Mills Park Middle School that she said could be relieved by getting the new Cary middle school started first.
“The reality is we’ve added all we can add to Mills Park Middle,” Evans said.
But other board members pointed to how people in Garner have been lobbying for a new middle school. School board member Jim Martin also said that, based on student achievement in southeastern Wake compared to northwestern Wake, he’d prefer to put the design money first into Bryan Road in Garner.
“Let’s put the stake in the ground for people who are less likely to advocate on their own,” Martin said.