Students are back in class. Will Wake voters pay to renovate their schools?

More than 1 million North Carolina public school students started a new school year on Monday, but 400 Wake County elementary school students got their own cheering section to greet them on the first day of class.

Students at Lincoln Heights Elementary School got high-fives Monday morning as they walked past a line of Fuquay-Varina police officers, firefighters and other community members. But what also pleasantly surprised many students was seeing for the first time how their newly renovated campus looks after the completion of a $26 million construction project.

“There’s so much pride in this building now,” said Kim Grant, principal of Lincoln Heights.

Lincoln Heights’ renovation was funded out of a $810 million school construction bond referendum approved by Wake County voters in 2013. Wake voters will decide this fall whether they want to support a $548 million referendum that will pay for the construction of new schools and renovations at existing schools.

The school bond has been backed by the Wake County Board of Commissioners and most school board members. But school board member Don Agee has accused the school system of fiscal mismanagement in construction projects and urged the public to vote no on the bond referendum.

“The least cost for taxpayers of Wake County would be to make the county commissioners and Board of Education be concerned about the cost of facility construction,” Agee said at last week’s board meeting. “The only way that taxpayers can do this is with their votes this November.”

Agee’s statements drew criticism from school bond supporters.

“I’d love to hear what students and educators in buildings with need for renovation think of Mr. Agee’s callous dismissal of their conditions,” Kristin Beller, president of the Wake County chapter of the N.C. Association of Educators, tweeted last week.

Lincoln Heights, which first opened in 1961, has been an active construction site for more than two years as students and staff stayed on campus while the work was done in phases. Last school year, students ate lunch in their classrooms because there was no cafeteria available.

“Some of the facilities did not have consistent services due to the age of the building,” Grant said. “We worked with facilities to do the best that we could to make sure that we were always up and running and have everything operable each day.”

During the construction work, the school’s PTA began sponsoring a Million Fathers March event, part of a national effort to get fathers and other men to be more involved in the education of children. Fathers are encouraged to take their children to school on the first day of classes and to return regularly during the school year.

Lola Harrison took pictures of the greeters after dropping her grandson Jamonie, 8, and her granddaughter Ja’miyah, 7, off at school.

“My grandson enjoyed it so much,” she said. “It was exciting for me as well.”

But what Harrison said her two grand babies couldn’t take their eyes off of is how different the school looks now.

“It was really overwhelming,” she said. “I didn’t think it was going to throw them off so much. It was like they were in a new place.”

The newly renovated campus fits in with the school’s environmental connections magnet school theme, said Grant, the principal. School features includes gardens and outdoor classrooms, including one on the school’s rooftop.

Grant said they intend to share the produce from the gardens with neighborhood families.

The new campus is far different from what it was when Jennifer Leggett, a second-grade teacher at Lincoln Heights, was a student at the school in the early 1970s. The result she said is a better place for students.

“Now everything is nice and crisp and brand new,” she said. “It gives children that excitement of being at school and having fun and being here all the time and wanting to come to school and learn.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui
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