Eight roofs, eight heating and cooling upgrades, three field houses and new bleachers, that’s what $30 million looks like.
Last week, Johnston County Superintendent of Schools Ross Renfrow took a list of the school system’s most pressing capital needs to county commissioners.
The list is consistent and expensive, focused on the nuts and bolts of some of the county’s oldest schools, with an eye toward shortening the gap between what some see as the haves and have-nots. Commissioners requested the list ahead of a meeting with the Local Government Commission, where Johnston County will seek permission for a loan to cover the cost of the projects.
New roofs would go on Cleveland Elementary, Four Oaks Elementary, Selma Elementary, Clayton Middle, Selma Middle, Smithfield Middle, Smithfield-Selma High and South Johnston High.
Heating and cooling systems will go in at Cooper Elementary, East Clayton Elementary, Pine Level Elementary, Selma Middle, North Johnston High, Smithfield-Selma High, Meadow School and Princeton Middle and High School.
New field houses are planned for Smithfield-Selma High School, Clayton High and South Johnston High. Clayton High School’s football field bleachers would come down and be replaced on the advice of an independent contractor, who raised safety concerns.
All told, the tab comes to $31.54 million, with the county seeking a $30 million loan, and the school system pledging to spend $1.54 million out of its savings account. Commissioner DeVan Barbour explained that the county couldn’t hold a bond referendum, the most common funding method for big-ticket projects, until 2018, because state law requires them to be held in even-numbered years.
“Even if you do a bond referendum in two years, it doesn’t mean the bond can be spent,” Barbour said. “You have to wait, sell the bonds, there’s a process. We asked what can’t make it for three more years.”
Renfrow told commissioners that Johnston is the second-fastest-growing district in the state and already the seventh largest. With all that growth, new schools dot the expansive county, looking and functioning differently than Johnston’s older schools, some into their fifth decade of educating students.
Projects like roof replacements and field houses satisfy a practical need, Renfrow said, but also work to bring some aesthetics and amenities to some of the older schools.
All but one of the new roofs will be pitched, replacing the common and leak-prone flat roofs of decades ago. Smithfield-Selma Middle School will get a new flat roof because of its HVAC system, which would quadruple the projects costs if a pitched roof were used, Renfrow said.
The three field houses are the only real additions on the project list, but Renfrow said they’re priorities all the same.
“I’ve said it all along, SSS deserves a field house on campus,” Renfrow said. “This is a show of good faith that the school system will make sure there’s something on campus to meet their needs. You have to also look at Clayton, which is in a similar situation, and South Johnston, which is in a similar situation.”
Renfrow pointed out that the cost of the three field houses, $1.5 million, is around the figure the school system plans to spend on its own.
“We want to have some skin in the game,” Renfrow said. “Whatever is over $30 million, we’re prepared to pay for in order to help our school system erase the disparity between the haves and have-nots.”
Last month, before students returned to class, Renfrow met with the mayors of Johnston County and talked about the $30 million priorities list. One mayor, he said, called the projects a Band-Aid at best. Renfrow said he didn’t disagree, but something is better than nothing.
“The Band-Aid is all we can get right now, and we need to embrace it,” Renfrow said.
Susan Lassiter of Concerned Citizens for Successful Schools followed Renfrow’s presentation at the commissioners meeting, and in presenting a case that Smithfield and Selma schools have fallen behind the rest of the county, she suggested redrawing attendance boundaries. Redrawing lines, she said, could redistribute students between the over- and under-capacity schools. Renfrow said redrawing boundaries is something easier to advocate than implement.
“People have more choice than ever when it comes to schools,” Renfrow said. “There are more schools in Johnston County than the public school system. There are private schools and a charter school, with more charters on the way. The fastest-growing school district in the home-schooling district. Do something unpopular and parents will see that they have choices and will say we’re not doing that at all. All those variables have to be factored into the equation.”
Renfrow was the principal of Corinth Holders High School when it opened in 2009, moving from the principal’s job at North Johnston High. He said when Corinth Holders opened, long-established North Johnston attendance lines shifted, and parts of the Crocker’s Nub community adamantly opposed going to the new school.
“I grew up with these people, went to church with them, but even with me in that equation, they said, ‘You’re not sending us to the new school,’ ” Renfrow said. “It becomes very political. Politics shouldn’t stand in the way, but talk about where people can go to school and that’s when the passion comes up. Think about what would happen if you told people where they can go to church. I would say they’re equally passionate about where to go to school.”
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson