Wake County Commissioner John Burns struck a nerve while touching base on school affairs during his guest appearance at the Garner Town Council’s annual planning retreat.
Burns asked the council what residents are saying about the temporary high school shift, using South Garner High as a swing space until an overhaul to Garner High is finished.
“They’re glad; they just wish the whole thing would have been torn down and started over,” Councilman Gra Singleton replied. “South Garner is a nice school. My son goes there, and it’s good.”
The tone of the discussion shifted after Burns told the council to keep him updated on any school-related challenges they come across.
Councilwoman Kathy Behringer said she didn’t get an adequate response when she asked school leaders how South Garner High would be populated once Garner High reopens. Councilman Buck Kennedy said the town needs better communication from and a better relationship with the school system.
“We ask for information and we get a Texas two-step, and they slip around it and (ask) why, and they try to schmooze us,” Kennedy said. “And all of that, that doesn’t work. People think about our schools, and they have perceptions, and we’re not sure that they’re accurate. When we’re not equipped with the facts, we can’t dispute some of the things that we want to.”
Burns said commissioners had seen signs of improved relations with school leaders after clashes over funding.
“There was so much distrust there between the old commission and the old board that the old commission couldn’t say, ‘this is the debt capacity.’ They would doubt that,” Burns said. “They didn’t trust those numbers coming out of our budget department. A lot of that is gone.”
In a follow-up interview, Wake school board Chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler said school officials wouldn’t have been able to answer Behringer’s question because assignment plans have yet to be established for South Garner.
“The answer is we really don’t know,” Johnson-Hostler said. “We won’t start assignment until late spring, early summer, so no school in Wake County knows what their assignment is yet.”
In response to Kennedy’s comments, Johnson-Hostler said she feels like the school system has done enough in terms of staying in touch with the town.
“I hoped and thought we would definitely tighten up our relationship,” she said. “I haven’t met with them since I was re-elected, but I’ve made myself open and available to them. If I put myself in their shoes, I’d be asking the same questions. I’m not offended by their questions – they need to ask them for their constituents.”
In the middle
Burns’ visit came with standard-issue updates, like recent changes on the county board and ways the county is supporting the town’s initiatives.
He thanked the council for its support of the transit bond referendum.
“I don’t know that there’s a town in Wake County that’s going to benefit more from the transit plan being put into place,” he said. “Y’all saw that, y’all worked hard on it, and your support was very important. … We’re very confident it’s going to come through so you can make your Garner station really take off.”
Since Garner is close to several destinations, Burns said the next big wave of growth will hit fast.
He vowed that commissioners will work with Garner on development on the town’s outskirts.
“We don’t want the gateway to your town that you have a plan for the way the gateway is going to look, and somebody can develop something completely opposite just outside your (extraterritorial jurisdiction) because the county let them do it,” Burns said.
Burns talked about challenges facing behavioral health and how commissioners are asking state leaders for help.
He said the closure of Dorothea Dix Hospital had created capacity issues for emergency operations at Rex and WakeMed hospitals.
“We’ve got a great opportunity with a new city park, which will be wonderful for the community and wonderful for the region,” Burns said, referring to the Dix property. “But people with behavioral health challenges in Garner, Fuquay-Varina and in Raleigh were taken to Dix as the emergency room for mental health. That no longer exists.”
Shifting the conversation to development, Councilman Ken Marshburn asked Burns to remember the vacant Jones Sausage Road property where ConAgra Foods was formerly located. The Slim Jim plant there closed in 2011, after a 2009 explosion that killed four. The plant was the town’s largest employer and a significant piece of its tax base.
Burns said county economic-development leaders are eager to fill the space and the site remains part of discussions with developers.