Smithfield Herald

Schools, college seeking bond dollars

The county’s public schools and community college took their building needs to county commissioners last week.

Together, they’re looking for $125 million over the next two years to pay for land, new buildings and renovations. Commissioners heard the request but took no action.

The county’s public schools have been campaigning since last year for a bond issue that would pay for new schools. The school system’s projections show student enrollment will grow by 7,800 by 2020. Already, schools are adding mobile classrooms; some 140 are in place around the county.

In all, the public schools would like to start work on $57 million in new projects next year, followed by $53 million in building projects the following year.

Superintendent Ed Croom said his staff had cut its request from $140 million to $110 million in part because population projections have changed.

But the need is still huge. “We’ve got work cut out for us,” he said.

For example, Cleveland Middle School has 17 mobile units on campus, according to the school system’s chief operating officer, Patrick Jacobs. A top priority, then, is a new middle school in the Cleveland community.

“We’re getting to a point where we can’t find a place to put them on campus,” Jacobs said of mobile classrooms.

The schools also have to keep up with rapidly-changing technology. Jacobs said many computers in the schools are antiquated. “Many of them don’t work on our servers anymore,” he said. “Technology is a thing you constantly have to improve.”

College needs

Johnston Community College, meanwhile, is asking the county to help it buy an additional 26 acres near campus.

In all, the college wants $15 million to supplement the private funding it’s raising for $64.5 million in projects around campus. Those projects include auditorium renovations, parking lot and driveway construction and a new bookstore.

College leaders say the land acquisition – which would cost about $1.4 million – is time-sensitive. The college needs to purchase the land before another buyer scoops it up, said President David Johnson.

“If we choose not to purchase at this time, it could go to someone else,” he said. “I feel like that would be a disservice to the college.”

In particular, the college hopes to buy land next to its arboretum and at the intersection of College Road and Martin Luther King Boulevard. The additional land would give JCC the space it needs to complete a building plan approved by the county in 2008. The plan calls for another 584,000 square feet of campus space, including new classrooms and laboratories.

Johnson said the plan would go to waste without the new land. “Without the property, the master plan is incomplete,” he said.

Commissioner Allen Mims asked Johnson how much money the college could raise privately for the land purchase. Johnson said he could get about $700,000.

One problem, Johnson said, is that it has been hard to get donors to understand that a public college still needs private support. But he said attitudes are changing, and he’s pursuing donors more aggressively.

“Quite frankly, if I could raise it all, I’d do it,” Johnson said.