Board of Education had wanted a $253.5 million bond
Johnston County Commissioners have authorized a $177 million general obligation bond referendum to go before voters in November 2022. The $177 million bond package is $76.5 million less than the $253.5 million bond the Johnston County Public School Board formally requested in April 2022.
The measure was approved 6-to-1. Commissioner Fred Smith voted against the resolution, saying Johnston County Public Schools only needs a $150 million bond this year. He stated additional bonds could be approved in 2024 and 2026, but the need for $177 million in 2022 was not justified.
Commissioner Smith stated, “In the private business world, free market determines how money and capital is spent. Private businesses determine what they’re going to charge for their goods and services. Customers decide whether they’re going to pay it or not pay it and they have the option to walk away if the price is not good and the market sets the price. We as commissioners are faced with the fact that government sets the price that the customer, the taxpayer, has to pay. The taxpayer doesn’t have any choice about whether to pay or not pay. And so, if government overcharges, the taxpayer doesn’t have any way not to pay it, except the taxpayers elect us. And we are the person or group that determines what is fair and what is correct for government to charge the taxpayers. And that is our job. Our job is to represent both government and the taxpayer. Because we are the only entity that can represent fairly the taxpayer. The taxpayer is not like the customer. The taxpayer doesn’t have any choice other than depend upon us to make sure that we only charge the revenue that is needed for our county.”
“I support the school system. Twenty-two years ago when this County began to build schools I believe I made the motion to start that and was a champion for building schools. And I still am going to support the school system, but I also want to support the taxpayer and I want to make sure that we use the taxpayers funds for the best possible way. Our job as commissioners is to determine that need and the way we should do that is not based on opinion. That decision needs to be based on credible facts and we need to let the credible facts inform our opinion.”
“I know it sounds good to say, whatever the school board wants lets fund it. I know that sounds good. But let’s look at some of the facts that we have to deal with. These facts I got from the report that OREd gave to the school board February 8, 2022.”
“Let’s look at capacity. When we look at the capacity of our schools, we are under capacity… This does not include mobile classrooms. We have 186 mobile classrooms out there, and I’m not even including those in these facts. Our elementary schools, our design capacity is 16,802 students. And based upon this report, which came out of OREd that was given to us on February 8, they only have 16.234 students, or over capacity of 568. And in ’22-23 there is over capacity, and until ’23-24, doesn’t reach a deficit,” Smith continued.
“Our middle school, we have a design capacity of 8,836 and we’re using at this time 7,922, or we have 914 empty seats. And for ’22-23, it 7,980 or 856, and going all the way out to ’25 we still have an over capacity in our middle schools.”
“Our high schools, the design for our high schools is 11,313. Now our high schools have a deficit, more students than the design capacity. So the issue there is we need to decide whether high schools, because students only go for part of a day, as to whether the school board is making good use of our high schools. ‘Cause high schools are not just buildings, they’re athletic fields, they’re gymnasiums, there are many other costs that get added to that. So, I think from a capacity standpoint, we have some room,” Smith stated.
“There has been discussion about overcrowding, or the schools at capacity, and the numbers I’ve seen do not match numbers in the OREd report. For our elementary schools we are at capacity on 10 schools. We are under capacity on 14 schools. For our middle schools, we are at capacity on 3 schools. We are under capacity on 8 schools. For our high schools we are at capacity on 3 schools and we’re under capacity on 5 schools. So when you add that up, schools that are at capacity are 16. Schools that are not at capacity are 27. So we have 27 schools that are not at capacity today.”
“So let’s look at growth, student growth. This also comes from the chart in the OREd packet, and that student growth in 2017, we had 34,224 students. In 2021, we had 35,148, or an increase in five years of 924 students. So that’s a 2.7 percent increase in students and I’m talking about the brick and mortar buildings. I’m not talking about the virtual buildings,” Mr. Smith stated.
Smith said that citizens can make choices between government schools and charter schools. Two charter schools are currently being built in the county and are scheduled to open this fall. There is also the option of home schools. “Just because homes are being built it doesn’t mean they are going to government schools.”
Smith said he was only in favor of a $150 million school bond, not the $253.5 million bond requested by the Board of Education. Smith said $150 million would pay for two new elementary schools ($95 million) and leave $55 million to make improvements and expansions at existing campus countywide.
He said a high school could be funded with a bond in 2024 and built in 2025 and 2026. Referencing the same OREd report, Smith said the OREd study indicated a new high school was not needed until 2027.
Commissioner Smith said Johnston County leaders have asked the school system what they will be requesting in the 2022-2023 budget that must be adopted by Commissioners no later than July 1, 2022. Smith said they have heard “crickets” from the school board. He said the school board always asks for more money than they need.
In the last 3 years, Smith said Johnston County Commissioners had funded JCPS $36 million more than they needed to operate. In 2020, the school system received $71 million but only spent $63 million, leaving and $8 million fund balance. In 2021, the school board received $72 million but only spent $58 million, leaving an additional $13 million in reserves. The school board received $80 million for the current fiscal year. Based on projections they will spend $65 million, leaving $15 million in the bank, he stated.
With federal funding, Commissioner Smith estimated the school system had an additional $100 – 103 million on hand. That would be enough money to pay for construction of a new high school without a bond issue.
“Because of those things, and the needs of this county, and because of us being good stewards of taxpayer money, I recommend that we pass a bond and I will vote for passing a bond for $150 million this year. I think in ’24, our figures have shown, at that time build a high school and meet some other needs, and in ’26 we can meet some other needs. I just think the $177 million, the facts don’t support that,” Smith said.
More Subdivisions = More School Growth
Commissioner Tony Braswell disagreed saying he supported the $177 million bond. “I’d like to give you some facts. We have 186 mobile units as he related to. This bond, if we pass it, it will get 95 kids out of mobile classrooms.” (NOTE: In actuality, 95 of the 186 mobile classrooms would be taken out of service, not 95 students moved from mobile to traditional classrooms).
“We have approved multiple, multiple subdivisions. There will be more approved in the next two years. It will be two years before a school will ever open its doors. So we’re going to have two more years of us approving subdivisions with kids in, then we’re going to keep stacking up the need. Fact. The latest high school cost $45 million at Corinth and over in Cleveland. Now, projections on that has doubled. How much is it going to be two years from now? Fact. If you do not build these schools you’re going to have to bus students somewhere… I don’t see any need to prolong a high school two years that is going to cost even more… Are we going to provide the support for all of these subdivisions we created and more to come and are we going to say okay we understand that but we also understand that these kids need to go to school somewhere. And every child deserved a classroom to sit in, not a mobile unit out there…. If we don’t support this bond it will set us back 10 years,” Commissioner Braswell said.
Commissioner Tony Braswell said he and Commissioner Dickie Braswell were the only county commissioners with children attending JCPS.
Commissioner Smith then stated the school board hasn’t found any sites for the new schools, something they should have already done.
Build Schools More Efficiently
Commissioner Ted Godwin stated, “I see a lot of merit in what everybody has said. The problem I have with the school system in the past has been not building schools in an efficient way. I went to school and I know Commissioner (Dickie) Braswell went to school in a three-story building, 12 grades, and probably 15 acres of land. It’s a different time… When I look at $103 million for a high school, I don’t think it needs to be that. I tend to agree with Commissioner (Tony) Braswell that we need to build the schools and have them available but we need to build them cheaper. I think the school board should be doing it cheaper. I’m going to support getting the buildings built. I just wish we could get the school board to get them built cheap.”
Commissioner Dickie Braswell said, “Every student is entitled to a comfortable classroom although we have a tendency to lean back on our experiences, but when we went to school in three-story schools, unairconditioned schools, no fire protection, we didn’t have air condition at home. It was a total different living environment for students at the time. But I see merit in everybody’s comments but I don’t want to kick the can down the road. Let’s go ahead and get something happening.”
Commissioner Patrick Harris added, “One of the things that always troubles me is when we push projects down 2, 3, 4, 5 years, what is that cost going to look like. I know what the cost has gone up in the last five years. I think this board has been very clear with the school board that we’re interested in thinking outside the box and perhaps building up versus out and not having these sprawling campuses. I think students deserve a nice state-of-the-art facility to go to school and be educated in but I think there is some room that that can be improved upon so that we’re not just building these massive schools that are not cost effective at all. And security becomes a problem as well.”
Chairman Butch Lawter stated, “I agree with what’s been said by everybody. I’ll take the numbers that Commissioner Smith presented at face value… We’re playing catch up and that’s one of the things when I ran in 2018 we were behind in schools and all the county facilities as well. I’d hate to kick the can down the road two more years because I believe Thanksgiving Elementary is the last one we built and that was a three-year process from the start of the design. Whatever we start on will be next year by the time the bond passes… I know the growth is coming so I hate to again be a part of kicking the can down the road so I would support the maximum amount we’ve mentioned here. I do wish we have more control. I think the school board has been listening. The Facilities Manager, the Superintendent have been listening to what we’ve had to say.”
Commissioner Fred Smith made a motion to approve a $150 million school bond referendum. The motion failed due to a lack of a second.
Commissioner Tony Braswell then made a motion to approve a $177 million school construction bond. “We can afford to do this. We could afford to do $200 million,” he said. Commissioner Godwin seconded the motion. The vote passed 6-to-1 with Commissioner Smith voting against.
Chairman Lawter said the board of commissioners expects to receive a “reasonable budget” this year from the school board with “realistic” numbers.
We reached out to Johnston County Public Schools to obtain a list of projects the $177 million general obligation school package would fund, if approved by voters in November. Officials said Wednesday they were still compiling the list.