Cary News

Wake schools may fight for Cary 9th-grade center

The possibility of a free-standing ninth-grade school in west Cary isn’t dead yet. Wake County Public School System staff have moved to override the town of Cary’s veto last month of a planned temporary facility near Alston Ridge Elementary School.

An email from school system staff, meanwhile, shows several potential sites for the facility.

The appeal, which landed at Cary Town Hall on May 25, argues that the council should have allowed the school system to build seven temporary classrooms and one semi-permanent structure on a vacant lot near Alston Ridge Elementary School. The center would serve students of the three-mile distant Panther Creek High School, which is expected to reach 110 percent of its capacity next school year.

Superintendent Tony Tata said Friday they’re unsure if they’ll follow through on the challenge of the town’s veto. Tata said staff filed the appeal as a “placeholder,” to make sure they wouldn’t lose the right to contest the veto. The appeal is on the agenda for an August meeting of the town’s Zoning Board of Adjustment.

“They did their due process,” Tata said of the veto. “ What we’re trying to do is meet the needs of the system. We have a need to house more students. We’re going to find the most suitable option that works for the Town of Cary and the school system.”

As it stands, the school board’s appeal focuses on the language of Cary’s ordinances. Cary council and town staff say the rules don’t allow stand-alone temporary structures, while the schools argue the opposite. The appeal, which was not ordered by the school board, contests town staff’s interpretation of the rules. A victory by the school system would force the town to reconsider plans for the center.

The school filing portrays the Alston Ridge site as an ideal solution for overcrowding at Panther Creek, thanks to its proximity to the parent school, and any parking lots and roads installed now could be used for a future middle school. Bus-riding students would arrive at Panther Creek in the morning and ride shuttles to the ninth-grade center.

There’s not much support on Cary’s governing board for the idea of a free-standing center. Council members say a change to town laws to accommodate the temporary center could allow any other school to set up modular classrooms on vacant lots.

Cary Councilwoman Gale Adcock didn’t fault the school system for appealing the issue, but suggested the school staff and elected officials look at other options. Councilman Don Frantz , meanwhile, said the appeal seemed to flout the town’s vision.

“If they respected our ordinances, they wouldn’t be filing an appeal,” Frantz said. “It’s just unfortunate. We have these rules in place for a reason.”

At issue is a short section of the local laws. The town’s ordinance says that “temporary structures serving as expansion space for schools are allowed in all districts in which schools are allowed.”

School system staff argue this allows modular expansion classrooms on any site where schools are allowed. Jeff Ulma, the town’s planning director, said the rules are written around an assumption that those temporary classrooms must be built around a permanent base, as evidenced by other wording in the ordinance.

Tata said the system is considering other sites for the ninth-grade center. An email from the school system to the town of Cary revealed a few possibilities, including a site just north of the Stonewater subdivision; two sites on Airport Boulevard in Morrisville; and one site on Aviation Parkway in Cary.

The school system had hoped to open the center before 2013-14 at a cost of about $5.4 million over the next six years, staff estimated.

Staff writer T. Keung Hui contributed to this report.