Southwest Wake News

Wake school building plan shows tenuous signs of progress

This week’s warming trend may reach beyond outdoor temperatures and include some thawing in the relationship between the Wake County Board of Commissioners and its Board of Education.

At Monday’s meeting – four days before a scheduled joint meeting with the education board – commissioners were relatively friendly to school leaders’ most recent proposal for beginning to build the new schools voters approved in an $810  million bond referendum last fall. The school system hopes to build some of the schools in time to open in 2016.

Also at the meeting, commissioners approved giving the human services department nearly $1.7 million to hire additional staff to help process Medicaid and food and nutrition assistance applications.

Dealing with school construction in January, commissioners tabled a request from the school system to appropriate design money for two new elementary schools after some commissioners asked for proof that school officials would save as much money as possible in the process. A major line of questioning was whether the school system was making the best use of prototypes, and whether it could use prototypes already tried within the county, or if it needed to purchase new designs that had been tried elsewhere.

Monday, Joe Desormeaux, assistant superintendent for facilities for the schools, answered those questions, withdrew the January proposal and offered a new one that would get work started on four elementary schools in time for a 2016 opening and a middle school set to open in 2017.

In all, the school system plans to build 11 new elementary, three middle and two high schools, funded mostly with money from the bonds approved last fall. The new schools, as well as planned renovations to existing schools, are needed to keep up with continued growth of population in the county.

Assessment acceptance

Generally, commissioners have accepted the school system’s assessment that it needs to build new schools, but Republican commissioners have clashed with the Democratic-led school board over how best to proceed. Republicans would like to take control of the building process, saying they would be better stewards of taxpayers’ money.

While they continue to hope for a legislative change that would give them that authority, Republican commissioners have intervened in the process in the most effective way they can: by holding up the appropriation of funds to do the work.

But on Monday, they seemed satisfied with the school board’s claims that it would save nearly $27 million in the long-term construction plan by using prototypes from outside Wake County. Those schools will serve students’ needs and be less costly to build than ones using designs the county already has, Desormeaux told the board.

Commissioner Paul Coble asked Desormeaux if he could say how many times the school system would use its prototypes, in order to get the most value out of each.

Ideally, Desormeaux said, it would use the same one continuously for each type of school: elementary, middle and high. But often, prototypes have to be tweaked to fit different school sites, adding design costs back in, he said.

Coble asked Desormeaux to research instances in which the county has been able to use prototypes over and over again.

It was a first reading for the funding proposal; commissioners are expected to vote on the funding requests at their March 17 meeting.

In the meantime, commissioners are scheduled to meet Friday morning with the board of education to discuss ways in which the two groups can better work together, especially in regards to the building plan.

Resources for NC FAST

The Board of Commissioners’ approval of new social services funding comes as Wake County has been struggling to eliminate a backlog of old aid applications while also processing increasing numbers of new applications, all while adapting to the statewide computerized system called NC FAST.

Liz Scott, assistant director of human services for the county, told the board that using temporary workers and overtime has helped: “But our staff have been doing overtime for quite some time, and they’re tired. It’s not sustainable. We are just in need of additional staff.”

The money will be used to establish the equivalent of 36 new full-time positions.

Scott told the board that the county is on track to eliminate its backlog of applications by March 15, but it will need the additional staff to keep from getting behind again. Also, she told commissioners, as more aid programs are folded into NC FAST later, the county likely will need to hire even more people.