Wake County municipalities put school projects under microscope

First grade teacher Kimberley Maret waits with students in the hallway of their modular classroom unit as they prepare to head to physical education class at Cedar Fork Elementary School in Morrisville.
First grade teacher Kimberley Maret waits with students in the hallway of their modular classroom unit as they prepare to head to physical education class at Cedar Fork Elementary School in Morrisville.

School projects in Wake County are running into tough questioning from municipalities – a level of scrutiny that’s causing delays in some projects and hard negotiations over others.

In the past two months, the opening of a traditional public school in Raleigh and a charter school in Knightdale were each delayed for a year after local officials raised concerns about how the projects would affect traffic. Talks over another school project in Garner came down to the wire when town officials threatened to withhold a permit for the construction work.

School officials say they need to get projects approved to keep up with growth and to provide educational options for families. But municipal officials say they have to balance the school concerns with community concerns.

“We both have a need to handle all the students who want to enroll in the school system and provide them with classrooms to study in,” said Ben Hitchins, Morrisville’s planning director. “We also have concerns from neighbors about the student population of any given school, especially when it expands beyond the capacity of a permanent building.”

The questions over locating new schools could escalate as the Wake County school system, charter schools and private schools continue to look for more potential sites. At the same time, large pieces of usable real estate are disappearing in the fast-growing county.

Schools have to request permits from municipalities for construction of new schools, renovations and placement of mobile classrooms.

Joe Desormeaux, the Wake County school system’s assistant superintendent for facilities, said it’s getting harder to find good sites that meet state and municipal requirements. In particular, it’s costing school districts more to deal with public infrastructure requirements such as stormwater treatment, road paving, adding turn lanes and traffic lights and keeping carpool traffic off public roads.

Negotiations with Garner lengthened when the town required the school district to pave the gravel road near the site of the new Bryan Road Elementary School. Wake balked at the request, saying it shouldn’t have to pay to pave a state-maintained road.

School officials warned that any delays getting approval to start Bryan Road would also delay needed renovations to Vandora Springs Elementary School, likely disrupting a relocation plan needed to increase available seats. Wake plans to temporarily relocate students to Bryan Road for the 2017-18 school year while Vandora is demolished and rebuilt.

In a compromise reached in January, the school district agreed to pave the road and Garner agreed to drop the requirement that Wake add curbs and gutters along the school’s road frontage.

“We tried not to be the obstacle in the road,” said Garner Councilman Gra Singleton. “We worked with them by relaxing our standards.”

School board Chairman Tom Benton has said the board was close to a vote on delaying Bryan Road when the deal was reached.

But a delay turned out to be unavoidable for the new Poole Road Elementary School in Southeast Raleigh. The school was scheduled to open in the 2017-18 school year but administrators told the school board in January that they’ll need to wait a year.

The school district is looking to acquire more land near the site to address concerns from the City of Raleigh and the state Department of Transportation that there won’t be enough room for cars and buses to safely get in and out.

The potential impact the new school could have on traffic is a concern for all commuters, according to Tim Sit, chairman of the Southeast Citizens Advisory Council, one of 19 advisory councils that advises Raleigh city officials.

“We’re not merely looking out for ourselves, we’re looking at the impact it will have on the parents and students at the school,” Sit said.

The consequences of some delays can be more severe than others.

In December, the Knightdale Town Council rejected a rezoning request that would have allowed for the construction of a home for the new Cardinal Charter Academy of Knightdale. The vote nixed plans for the taxpayer funded charter school, which is independent of the Wake County school system, to open in August 2016.

The developers wanted to build a two-story, 68,000-square-foot building on a 13-acre tract off Poole Road, east of Hodge Road. But council members cited concerns such as the impact that location would have on traffic.

“We’d love to have a charter school in Knightdale,” said Mike Chalk, Knightdale mayor pro tem. “There are a lot of places in Knightdale where they could go where it would not have as much of an impact.”

But Scott Woodrey, president of Red Apple Development, which is building the school for Cardinal, said they’re planning to look for a site near but not in Knightdale. He noted that the company had also experienced objections from town leaders when it looked at a different site in Knightdale.

“Our attitude will be that we’ll move on to a community that’s more willing to embrace us,” Woodrey said.

Wake County school officials hope the situation won’t be as contentious later this year when they request permission from Morrisville to keep an eight-classroom modular classroom at Cedar Fork Elementary School.

Wake had gotten approval to place the temporary unit at Cedar Fork in 2014. Wake had wanted a five-year permit but the Morrisville Board of Adjustment limited the approval to three years, citing the potential traffic impact that would result in more students attending the school.

Hitchins, Morrisville’s planning director, said it’s too soon to say how the Morrisville Town Council will handle the new request.

Cedar Fork was placed on an enrollment cap for the 2016-17 school year to control overcrowding, meaning new families who moved into the school’s attendance area after Jan. 19 will be sent to Reedy Creek Elementary School in Cary.

Desormeaux, the assistant superintendent, said Wake would have to come up with a way to deal with lower capacity at Cedar Fork if the town makes them remove the modular unit.

“I don’t think they want to end up with reassignment of students there,” Desormeaux said.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui