And it needs a bond to pay for them
By ELIOT DUKE
Dunn Daily Record
SMITHFIELD – Brooks Moore delivered the bad news to Johnston County commissioners Tuesday night.
Johnston County Public Schools tasked its chief of facilities and construction with presenting the system’s capital needs to county commissioners in a joint meeting between the two boards.
When Moore finished going through a long presentation that included putting a bond on next year’s ballot, commissioners withheld their applause.
“I’m extremely disappointed in the report I just heard,” Commissioner Fred Smith Jr. said. “It is totally inadequate for what this county needs.”
What Smith didn’t know at the moment was Moore tried to be gentle in his assessment of the school system’s real capital needs over the coming years.
“There are much more needs but I did not want you to feel like I was throwing the kitchen sink at you,” said Moore. “I certainly can.”
Citing a recent ORED study, Moore said Johnston County is expected to be more than 7,000 students over capacity in the next decade. The system, Moore explained, needs at least three schools but in reality it’s more like five, and that’s not mentioning the ongoing annual upkeep of existing facilities, which is estimated to be more than $100 million.
“This plan is aggressive,” Moore said. “It adds almost 6,000 seats and removes 143 mobiles. It reduces class sizes to more optimal learning and it gets kids into brick and mortar buildings and out of trailers.
“I’m begging for a 2022 bond. You wouldn’t start construction until 2025 [with a 2024 bond] and you wouldn’t open a school again until 2026. That’s a long time. It’s scary.”
Smith said a disconnect between the two boards over the years resulted in miscommunication that negatively impacted Johnston County residents. The commissioner stressed the importance of opening the lines of communication, starting with JCPS being fully transparent where its capital needs are concerned.
“That’s a problem we have in Johnston County today: We thought too small,” Smith said. “The school board and the schools facility people have not been honest enough with what you need to meet the needs of the people of this county. This county has the money it takes to get rid of mobile schools and to build the schools we need to have a first class educational system for our students.
“What are facts? [Moore] said he didn’t want to put more on the table because of sticker shock. The commissioners asked to have this meeting because we want to start a new day.”
Johnston County Board of Commissioners Chairman Chad Stewart said he understood the school system faces many needs, but he needed more assurances from the board of education before even considering the possibility of asking taxpayers to support another bond referendum.
“One thing I’ve heard here repeatedly … the unknown, we’re not sure, we’re uncertain,” said Stewart. “When we’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars and I hear those terms over and over, I want some certainty. I want to know where we’re heading. We can vote on setting a bond … but we can’t pass the bond. It takes our citizens to pass the bond.
“You’re going to ask people who have been educating their kids at home and feeding them and not using our facilities for over a year and … say ‘hey we need a couple hundred million dollars to start building schools?’ It’s a mindset thing. We need to be careful.”
Johnston County Board of Education member Ronald Johnson expressed his displeasure with how commissioners responded to Moore’s presentation, as if it was something they didn’t want to hear.
“Just sitting here, it becomes almost frustrating for in the beginning to say ‘it’s inaccurate, you need more than this, come with us, be honest with what you need,’” Johnson said. “[Moore] says we need five schools and everyone is like ‘whoa.’
“Where we do realistically go from here? We had these same conversations in 2018. Just my frustration sitting here with this, I can only imagine what the outside people, the frustration they have with taking their children to overcrowded schools, the teachers in the mobile units.”
Commissioner Patrick Harris appreciated Moore’s effort to lessen the burden facing the county, but said the problem isn’t going away.
“You wanted to come with something reasonable and not something where it just blew everyone out of their chairs,” said Harris. “But at some point we need to look at, realistically, what we can do to fix the problem. I don’t like mobile classrooms. I do think it’s time to fix some of these problems and move forward. Let’s stop the overcrowding problem. If we’re building schools and six months later, they’re overcrowded, that’s a problem. Let’s build for the future.”
Both boards eventually agreed to come together in a group setting soon and hammer out the details on a realistic, achievable plan for moving forward.
Tuesday provided a first step towards reaching that goal.
Eliot Duke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 910-230-2038.