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Could Special Partnerships Help Wake Schools' Overcrowding?

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RALEIGH, N.C. — More year-round schools are necessary to make room for the anticipated extra 20,000 new students expected to walk Wake County's school hallways over the next five years, school leaders have said.
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    Could public-private partnerships be a better alternative to the classroom shortage than new school-owned buildings, or would they be just a part of an overall plan to help ease the pressure from the county's booming population?

    With public-private partnerships, school systems would essentially rent-to-own schools from private developers, who would buy the land, construct the buildings and lease the property to the districts.

    The idea is that companies can come up with the money faster than county commissioners, who usually have to get taxpayer approval. And, proponents have said, schools could also save on inflation and interest in the process.

    Francis DeLuca, with the conservative group Americans For Prosperity, feels the Wake County Public School System needs to utilize more alternatives, such as these partnerships and charter schools.

    That is one reason why he is opposed to a proposed $970 million school bond that would allow for 17 new schools and renovation on existing ones.

    "They want to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more than they need to spend," DeLuca said.

    State lawmakers just recently paved the way for the public-private partnerships, however, and just how they will work is unclear.

    Chris Sinclair, with the Triangle Community Coalition, which supports the partnerships, said he has heard from as many as five developers who are interested in the partnerships, but said he is unsure how long it might take to get even one school built.

    The alternative, according to Mike Burriss of Wake schools' facilities department, still would not eliminate the need for bonds.

    "I don't think the private-development community is going to be able to respond with that volume [of students expected]," Burriss said.

    Still, he said, he is excited that the new alternative will be a tool to get schools built faster.

    If the nearly $1 billion bond fails when taxpayers vote on it in November, the school system will be $300 million short on its construction needs, school board members have said -- meaning they will have to find other ways to ease overcrowding.

    In the past year, the school system has made some unconventional moves such as leasing an old grocery store to serve as a ninth-grade student center and purchasing an old manufacturing plant that will be converted to an elementary school.

    The Wake County school system is not alone in the construction crisis, but it does need the most construction money -- $1.4 billion. Other systems with costly needs include Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which needs about $910 million, and Chatham County Public Schools, which needs about $80 million.


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