Voters Will Be Asked In November To Approve School Bond Referendum

(Left to right) School Superintendent Dr. Ross Renfrow, School Board Chairman Mike Wooten, and Commissioner Vice Chairman Ted Godwin discuss the needs of Johnston County Schools during a joint meeting between commissioners and the school board on Feb. 1st in Smithfield. Photo

Johnston County Schools are rapidly running out of space for elementary and middle school students. The school system is already over capacity for high schools. Those were the findings of a report presented by the Operations Research and Education Laboratory (OREd) at NC State University during a joint meeting of the Johnston County School Board and Johnston County Commissioners Thursday night in Smithfield.

OREd is using demographics and growth trends to predict how many new schools Johnston County will need to build to accommodate future growth and where those schools need to be built. That information will be presented in March or April.

Johnston County has seen a 13.3% increase in population between 2010 and 2016, above the statewide average of 6.4% for the same period.  Johnston County also has a high percentage of residents under age eighteen – 26 percent compared to 22.7% statewide.

Johnston County has 5 businesses employing 1,000 or more workers and an additional 6 companies with 500 or more workers. Combined with affordable housing and the median household income of $50,512 in the county compared to $46,868 in North Carolina, the county’s growth is expected to continue.

There are approximately 14,500 building lots already approved in Johnston County awaiting construction in the future.  Analysis say for every 2 new residential building lots, that is equal to about 1 new school student.

OREd said once the I-540 Loop is completed, I-40 is widened between Raleigh and 40/42, and Highway 42 is widened east and west of Clayton, additional growth is inevitable in Johnston County.

Future trends indicate the need for more kindergarten classrooms.  Johnston County had a low number of live births in 2013 of 2,165. In 2016 that number increased to 2,336. 2017 numbers are not yet available but are expected to be even higher.

Combined, the 23 elementary schools in Johnston County have a capacity of 16,961 students. Currently, a total of 16,514 students are enrolled in those 23 schools.  12 of the 23 schools are well-over capacity.

The 11 middle schools have a combined 8,619 seats. This school year, 7,973 are filled. Of the 8 high schools, the total capacity is 10,575 however 11,129 students are enrolled.

OREd predicts there were be 41,977 students enrolled in Johnston County Schools in the 2027-28 term an increase of more than 6,300 students enrolled this school year.

Towns Left Out Of Study?
OREd officials said four local towns did not respond to repeated requests to participate in the study. OREd said those towns were Smithfield, Selma, Four Oaks and Pine Level.

WTSB News learned Johnston County School officials were responsible for notifying each town to participate.  Officials from those 4 towns said they were never notified by Johnston County Schools to participate. Had they been asked, they would have been glad to provide feedback and their own growth numbers.

“I am interested in getting to the bottom of this because it is important,” stated Smithfield Town Councilman Emery Ashley. “Were the notifications by email, telephone call, or written correspondence and to whom?   I cannot imagine the Board of Education or the County Commissioners wanting this study completed with such glaring ommisions unless Smithfield or Selma would have blatantly refused to respond, which is not the case.  Both Smithfield’s and Selma’s staff have been very involved in the education, so it is surprising.”

Selma Mayor Cheryl Oliver said no one with the Town of Selma was ever contacted to provide information.

What’s Next?
OREd researchers at NC State expect to present a final report of the data to Johnston County Schools in March or April.  That statistical analysis will indicate what schools are needed, when they will be needed, and what geographic areas they need to be built.

School Board Chairman Mike Wooten thanked County Commissioners for a $30 million loan in 2016 to pay for renovations and repairs at several campuses. Wooten said there are an additional $70 million in repairs needed at other schools.

In additional, 138 mobile classrooms are currently in use at public schools across the county.

Representatives from the school board are expected to formally ask Johnston County Commissioners in March to allow voters to decide on a school bond referendum in November 2018. The amount of the school bond request will likely be made next month.

How Much More Can Taxpayers Afford?
If a bond referendum is approved in November, Johnston County taxpayers will be on the hook to repay the debt.

As of February 1st , the County of Johnston had $272,773,862 in general fund debts. The majority, 92 percent, or $249,753.069 is debt for prior school bond referendums.  The remaining 8 percent covers the combined debt for JCC bonds, the Agricultural Center, and other projects. It does not include water and sewer projects.

The current property tax rate is 78 cents.  Of that amount, 36 cents is for Johnston County Schools. Broken down, 23 cents goes toward operating expenses of Johnston County Schools this fiscal year. An additional 13 cents is going toward the retirement of the $249,753.069 in existing debt for previously built schools.  Many of the loans for new school buildings were financed for 18-20 years.