Local News

Wake Officials Look at Leasing Schools From Developers

Posted February 21, 2007 6:35 a.m. EST
Updated February 21, 2007 5:52 p.m. EST

— Wake County commissioners and school board members met Wednesday to look at the possibility of using public-private partnerships to build schools faster and more cheaply.

A state law that went into effect last July allows schools to be built by developers, who then lease the buildings to school districts. Because the law hasn't been used in North Carolina yet, experts from other states made presentations during the three-hour meeting on how public-private partnerships have worked elsewhere.

Leasing schools would mean districts wouldn't have to have money upfront to build schools. Supporters of the idea argue it would be an alternative to ease overcrowding and get schools built faster and cheaper.

The school district takes about two and a half years to acquire land and build and open a school.

“This should expand the number of people working on these projects and still benefit the citizens in Wake County,” said Tony Gurley, chairman of the Board of Commissioners.

District administrators project enrollment at Wake County schools will continue to grow by about 8,000 students a year for the next several years. They already are using massive reassignments, year-round schedules and a $970 million school construction bond to try to create enough classroom space to accommodate the growth.

"As we're continuing to grow, we're going to need more schools," said Patti Head, chairwoman of the school board. "If in dealing with public-private partnerships, we can get these schools up quicker than we can as a public school system, that would benefit us to opening schools faster. We don't know that. We're just beginning the process."

The concept has been used in Virginia since 2002. Officials from that state said it hasn't saved money upfront, but districts have opened schools six months to a year earlier than expected -- one school even opened two years ahead of time.

“You can imagine the inflationary periods of 20 percent a year which we've seen in Virginia two years was a significant savings,” said Doug Westmoreland of FirstChoice, a public-private partnership firm in Virginia.

Wake school officials said accommodating growth would offset any lack of savings. Head said the district might do a comparison by building two schools -- one under its existing practices and one using a public-private partnership -- to determine which way works better.

The meeting was the first time in several months that the commissioners and the school board have gotten together. In the interim, harsh words have been exchanged after commissioners withheld money the district said was needed to convert 22 schools from a traditional calendar to a year-round schedule and proposed placing another huge school bond proposal on the November ballot.

Head opened the meeting by stating that the moves surprised and disappointed school supporters, but Gurley responded that the commissioners only wanted to urge the district to devise more options for handling school growth.