8/13/15 ABSS, county task force talk building needs
By Isaac Groves, The Times-News 8/13/15
Reprinted with permission.
“I think we’ve had some early successes, but the hard work really starts now,” Alamance County Manager Craig Honeycutt said, “the hard work on planning.”
With bond and lottery funds depleted, perhaps $29 million more to spend on repairs and the possibility of a new $40 million to $60 million high school, the county and school district are asking the task force to help define and explain the needs of Alamance-Burlington Schools to the public.
Last winter, the Alamance-Burlington Board of Education and Board of County Commissioners formed the Joint Schools Facilities Task Force with members of both boards, citizens appointed by both boards, and employees of the county and school district. It assessed conditions in schools and reported what needed to be done. Now it is helping with long-term plans for how to go about it.
Last spring, committee members toured schools and came up with long to-do lists for maintenance and repairs. Over the summer, the Alamance-Burlington School System did about a $1 million worth of work on about a dozen district schools.
There is a long list of work yet to be done, but the county’s school bonds are down to about $700,000, and unspent lottery money will not last forever. That will leave ABSS with the lottery funds that come in every year and whatever the county contributes for capital projects.
“We were very fortunate to have almost $3 million in lottery funds sitting there that had not been used,” Honeycutt said. “So now, once those funds are depleted, what are our next steps, and how do we look at setting those and prioritizing?”
The task force, he said, has an important job: supporting the goals of the school board and commissioners, and helping get public buy-in. Projections based on birth rates, elementary school enrollment and past rates of migration into Alamance County show current high school overcrowding getting worse in coming years, Harrison said. Those projections did not allow for the higher enrollment that comes with residential and economic development, Harrison said, both of which picked up locally in the past few years.
For the second time this week, Harrison said redistricting could deal with overcrowding at elementary and middle schools, but high schools are at their limits. Southern Alamance High School, he said, could not seat all of its 1,600 students for lunch without its patio.
“Kids eat outside in the rain out there,” Harrison said. “The bottom line is we have six high schools, and we need a seventh.”
Commissioner Eddie Boswell asked whether current schools could be expanded.
“You’ve got football fields, you’ve got some facilities that are maybe not at capacity,” Boswell said. “But to add a whole new high school is a whole big deal.”
Some of the schools are “landlocked,” limiting expansion, Assistant Superintendent Todd Thorpe said. Community feedback showed little public appetite for really large high schools, school board members Jackie Cole and Patsy Simpson said.
“Most of them don’t want their children lost in a school with 2,300,” Cole said.
Harrison said he would like to see seven high schools, all of about 800 to 1,500 students, so they could play sports in the same conference and have similar resources.
Boswell said it was still worth looking at expanding current facilities.
Harrison said he and Honeycutt were looking at “creative financing” to fund a new high school. After the meeting, he said one option was a lease-purchase contract — kind of a rent-to-own arrangement.
Commissioners Chair Dan Ingle said if nothing else, the task force should meet at least quarterly and more often as needed to look over the district’s and county’s progress. Harrison said they would schedule another meeting in a couple of months when he has a draft five-year plan for facilities and a redistricting plan.