Peace, harmony as Wake commissioners, school board discuss growth needs
Posted January 26, 2015
Raleigh, N.C. — After years of bickering over the everything from price of land for new school sites to the management of construction and renovation projects, members of the Wake County Board of Commissioners and the Board of Education said Monday that they are on the same page when it comes to addressing enrollment growth.
Politics played a major role in the changed attitude, as Monday's meeting was the first between the two boards since Democrats seized control of the Board of Commissioners in November. Democrats already held a majority on the putatively nonpartisan school board.
"I do believe we have a board now – a Board of Commissioners – that will indeed pay attention to the school board, will work hard to see that we are successful in building new schools and building new infrastructure for schools," longtime Commissioner Betty Lou Ward said.
The boards reviewed goals and plans for 2015, and members said they plan to meet monthly going forward.
School overcrowding and the lengthy construction and expansion list to keep up with surging enrollments is a main concern for both boards. Voters approved an $810 million school bond 15 months ago, but most of the 16 schools that will be built with the bond funds will open at capacity, as enrollment is projected to grow by 18,000 students over the next four years.
Assistant Superintendent for Facilities Joe Desormeaux said finding sites for new schools is becoming more difficult as Wake County grows. Many people like the idea of neighborhood schools, but they don't want the schools in their neighborhoods, he said.
Desormeaux said the district might have to look at building larger schools on smaller sites to handle the projected growth.
"We hear all the time, 'Why don’t you build bigger schools?' Well, we are building bigger schools," he said, noting that the capacity of area high schools has risen from 1,600 to more than 2,250 in the last decade.
At the same time, he said, bigger schools carry bigger maintenance costs, and the district has about 1 million square feet of space that hasn't been renovated in 40 years.
School board member Susan Evans said the two boards need to take "baby steps" to devise solutions to the district's classroom crunch and can't immediately discuss property tax increases to fund operations.
"I absolutely don’t think it gives us a blank check," Evans said, "but what I think is important for this new day of collaboration is that we can have some serious and fruitful conversation about what is really needed to position our school district to deal with the growth that we know we're going to be facing."
Jessica Holmes, one of four commissioners elected in November, said she appreciated the tone of the discussions after watching the acrimony between the boards in recent years.
"We’re making that first step moving from consternation to collaboration, and I think we’ve started from a place where everyone’s doing their absolute best to address growth," Holmes said. "Hopefully in the end, we’ll end up with schools that aren’t overcrowded and that our students have what they need."