Commissioners Caught Off Guard By $1.3 Million School Request

School Superintendent Dr. Ross Renfrow announced Tuesday he wants Johnston County Commissioners to pay the entire cost of new safety and security upgrades being made at school campuses around the county.  Renfrow made the announcement during the school board’s monthly meeting yesterday. When he made the announcement he had not shared the news with Johnston County leaders.

County Manager Rick Hester told WTSB News on Wednesday he was not aware the school system would be asking county commissioners to pay 100 percent of the costs.

On March 2nd, Dr. Renfrow unveiled a three phase plan to implement new security improvements following the Feb. 14 school tragedy in Parkland, Florida.  Commissioners agreed to pay $70,000 of the projected $140,000 cost of phase one of the plan.  At the time there were no further discussions or requests to fund phase two or three.

During Tuesday’s school board meeting, Dr. Renfrow said the security upgrades will cost about $1.3 million, or about 30 percent more than what was projected during the March 2nd email discussing security improvements.

In the email sent to stakeholders, Dr. Renfrow said, “Please know that we will do what it takes to find funding to fortify our facilities because this is a top priority for Johnston County.”

Phase 1 funds are being used to install interior and exterior security cameras at schools that currently don’t have them.  Phase 2 includes outfitting each school with front door controlled access units.

A bid was awarded Tuesday for Phase 3 which is the installation of key fobs and card swipe systems at every school.  Sevens Oaks Doors and Hardware from Stanly County was selected after submitting the low bid of $498,776.81.  Bids as high as $1,028,425 were received.

Dr. Ross Renfrow

As for funding the entire $1.3 million security project, Hester said,  “I was asked just prior to the March 5th Board of Commissioners meeting if the County wanted to split the cost of phase 1 in security improvements. The total cost was $140,000, so half would be $70,000.”

“Dr. Renfrow then made a presentation at the March 5 Board of Commissioners morning meeting and shared info about phase one and additional plans they have for security. The Board of Commissioners understood everything beyond phase one to be information only,” Hester said. “That night, the Board of County Commissioners – as originally requested – voted to split the cost of phase 1 in security improvements.”

“The Board of Commissioners cares deeply about school safety. I am confident they will review and discuss.”

Hester said commissioners agreed to the $70,000 cost on March 5th but had no idea the school system would return with a request for the full amount two weeks later.  Hester first learned of the request for $1.3 million from a reporter from WTSB.

Phone Calls, Emergency Response Plan  

Dr. Renfrow said the school system will begin recording all telephone calls beginning in about a week. There will be no cost for that safety measure as the recording feature is already built into the current phone system. Last minute legal issues are being worked out before the telephone recordings are started.

At Tuesday’s school board meeting Chief of Staff Dolores Gill said, “All of our school emergency response plans are being shared with key stakeholders in our municipalities in the event of an emergency.”   School Board Member Dr. Peggy Smith asked Gill to make sure the response plan was not made public due to security concerns.