Johnston County

What to do with Johnston's aging schools?

Middle and high school supervisor Eddie Price plays a game with a student in Julie Cauthren’s kindergarten classroom at Cooper Elementary School. Price attended middle school at Cooper.
Middle and high school supervisor Eddie Price plays a game with a student in Julie Cauthren’s kindergarten classroom at Cooper Elementary School. Price attended middle school at Cooper. jdjackson@newsobserver.com

Treasures from Cooper Elementary School’s years as a high school and middle school sometimes make their way to current principal Janet Lebo.

On one wall of her office she has artifacts from cleaned-out closets in Clayton, William M. Cooper High School diplomas from 1941 and 1944.

As one of Johnston County’s oldest schools, with roots stretching back more than a century and in a building dating to the 1950s, Cooper will always have a history. Its future, though, is at the heart of a larger discussion school leaders are having about what to do with aging schools.

As growth drives the construction of impressive new campuses like Cleveland and Corinth-Holders high schools, some are wondering what happens to the likes of Cooper, where water leaks into the library. They wonder too about Smithfield-Selma High School, where a field house developed mold, and about South Johnston, where a water line burst last week.

During a budget work session last month, board of education member Dorothy Johnson said the county’s older schools need more than patchwork. She spoke mostly about Cooper, a school she said she can walk to and whose library bears her name. Based on conversations with Lebo, she said the school has water leaks, outdated bathrooms and is in need of a fresh coat of paint and coverings over outdoor walkways between buildings.

“Cooper needs help, and it has really caused the teachers to fear for their students, to feel unsafe, to lose their interest,” Johnson said. “It’s pitiful. It is pitiful at Cooper. And it’s time for something to be done.”

Johnston schools Superintendent Ross Renfrow said his administration will commission a facilities assessment targeting the county’s older schools. The goal, he said, is prioritizing needs and budgeting solutions.

“When you stop and think about a school like SSS, that’s been in existence for 50 years, that’s a lot of students and a lot of wear and tear,” Renfrow said. “And you throw in a school like Cooper that’s been here even longer. ... The custodians do a great job, but there are legitimate needs out there as well.”

Based on an informal assessment, Renfrow said it could take as much as $90 million to address all needs countywide. In his current capital-outlay budget, Renfrow is requesting $3.9 million for the next school year, driven largely by maintenance projects like new roofs, parking lots and an air-conditioning unit. The largest projects, like brand new schools, will require a bond issue, which Renfrow said doesn’t seem likely this year based on conversations with county officials.

“It’s a legitimate list of about $90 million in needs, and that’s not just repairing existing structures, but taking into account new construction that needed to be done, including the building of a new elementary school, a new middle school and building out of the two newest high schools,” Renfrow said. “This facilities assessment will look at our oldest schools and see what they need to get back up to speed.”

Speed, said Johnson, is the issue. She says the county is not moving fast enough to address the woes of its oldest schools. The older schools are often some of the poorer schools and in the case of Cooper and SSS, some of the lowest-performing schools, according to the state’s report card.

“Some children are learning and some children are not,” Johnson said. “That’s why [Cooper] got a D, and they will continue to get D’s when you don’t have the facilities and when the children are losing interest.”

Johnson wasn’t the only board member to suggest Johnston’s older schools needed some attention.

“I’m proud of our new schools, and who wouldn’t be?” board member Mike Wooten said. “It’s easy for us as a board to have our blinders on knowing we have to meet the needs of the growth in the county, and we do. It’s easy for us to overlook the established schools that have been here for years and that need a facelift.

“We need to have capital funds go their way and bring their schools up to date and make them proud of where they are and give them a great learning environment. I think everybody on the board knows there needs to be some things done. We need to move forward on these older schools now and not later.”

School board member Keith Branch noted, though, that with the older schools, the county isn’t talking about a refreshing, but a renovation. These things, he said, are beyond the scope of the capital-projects budget.

“You’re talking about short term in capital outlay, not going into Smithfield-Selma and doing a facelift,” Branch said. “You’re talking about replacing a roof that’s leaking. In my opinion, our priority is fixing these older schools. If we don’t build anything new for a while, we need to fix these older schools, and the people in these communities need to know that we care.”

But Johnston’s school system is building new schools. In April, the board awarded a contact to build the new Norris Road Middle School in the fast-growing Cleveland community at a cost of $20.5 million.

Renfrow said the needs assessment would help determine what’s most urgent and represent a show of good faith to the public.

“The assessment will let them know we recognize the need and are willing to invest in an outside company to come and assesse the situation,” Renfrow said.

The school system’s senior officials held a meeting last week at Cooper unrelated to the county’s aging-schools discussion. But they did tour the school, finding along the way kindergarteners enrolled in bilingual classes and third-graders discussing the cultural merits of the selfie.

Eddie Price, the district’s middle and high school supervisor, attended middle school at Cooper and said one of the school’s newer wings was built over where he once triumphed in kickball.

The water issues at Cooper were apparent. The day before, a region-wide downpour washed over Cooper and left mulch and dirt on the sidewalks and asphalt, evidence the school’s drainage system had been overwhelmed. Inside the library, damp spots darkened the floor where water made its way into the room, and outside, a flood line on a door showed where water had collected.

Chief operations office Patrick Jacobs said the storm was a particularly bad one and that the school’s drainage system could handle the vast majority of rainfalls. As for the water inside the building, he noted that the school is on a hill and that all water flows to the library. But he did say his office would dig up the data wiring he suspected let in the water and make a better seal.

Elsewhere, though, he said the school is old and that certain things could never be fixed. In spite of that, Jacobs said, kids and teachers seemed prideful.

“I think I saw pride; I think I saw learning,” he said. “I saw a level of pride that I haven’t seen at other schools.”

Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson

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