Fort Bragg, N.C. — Overcrowded schools and long bus rides for children are not a new problem in many parts of North Carolina, and Harnett County is the latest school district to buckle under overwhelming growth.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county has seen a 25 percent population increase since 2000, especially to the west, where military families from nearby Fort Bragg are steadily moving into the area.
Many children in the sprawling new housing developments along N.C. Highway 87 near the Army post are bused to Boone Trail Elementary School in Mamers – nearly 20 miles away – a trip that can take an hour on back roads, parents said. New houses keep sprouting up in that area, compounding the problem.
"When do you have dinner? When do you do your homework?" said Maggy Gray, who moved to Anderson Creek Club a year ago with her husband and three kids. "When do you just get to have some free time?"
Her children attend Overhills Elementary School, which opened five years ago and soon needed trailers to make space for the influx of students. The school is now maxed out.
This spring, Gray said, she heard from other parents about their children being shuffled from school to school to relieve crowding.
"We realized right away that you can shift the kids all you want, but it still doesn't solve the problem of 'we need more buildings,'" she said.
So, the stay-at-home mom launched a Facebook campaign called "Building a Better Harnett" to rally community support for new schools.
The battle could be an uphill one. Four times since 2007, voters have rejected a quarter-cent sales tax to build new schools. Gray herself voted against it last year.
"The language of it is very difficult to understand. You don't know what it means," Gray said.
She wants the referendum on the ballot again this year, but this time, spelling out in plain English that the money is solely for school construction.
"This is what it's for. This is what you're voting for," she said. "This is why we need your help."
County Commission Chairman Jim Burgin said he doesn't support raising property taxes but thinks the sales tax is a fair approach.
"If we could pass the quarter-cent sales tax, that would take care of the elementary school, which is the most pressing need," he said.
Last year, commissioners voted to borrow $30 million to build a middle school in western Harnett County.
Still, many parents are criticizing county leaders for approving large housing developments before ensuring schools could accommodate them.
"I'd say that's probably true," Burgin said. "We didn't do as good of a job as we should in long-term planning. We're trying to change that now."
Commissioners plan to consider another sales tax referendum at its next board meeting. County leaders also say they're looking at outside funding sources for school construction, including the Department of Defense.
In 2008, commissioners asked for $120 million in federal aid for schools to offset expenses related to an influx of students from military families. At the time, the county received $78 per student in federal aid, compared to $323 per student in neighboring Cumberland County.