ELIZABETHTOWN — What was supposed to be an amicable get-together between the county’s Board of Education and Board of Commissioners turned somewhat testy Monday.
The two groups came together for a joint meeting in an effort to address the problem they face concerning aging schools, the need for future expansion and shifting student population.
The first hour of the meeting was filled with an overview by Superintendent Robert Taylor of the options available to the Board of Education going forward. But as the meeting was winding down, School Board member Tim Benton took the opportunity to take issue with the Board of Commissioner’s Board Chairman Charles Ray Peterson.
“Now that we’ve all heard what our thoughts are, what is your recommendation?” Benton asked Peterson.
“I don’t have a recommendation,” Peterson said. “I’m just here, like everyone else, to listen.”
Benton pushed on.
“Every time we make a recommendation, you don’t like it,” he said. “You’re the reason we’re here today.”
“Oh, I’m the reason,” Peterson fired back. “OK, well … I haven’t said I agree or disagree with this. Like anything, y’all bring is a recommendation and we’ll say yay or nay.”
Leading up to the tussle, Taylor took about 20 minutes to outline the leading option facing the School Board, which would close Booker T. Washington in Clarkton, closing Plain View Primary in Tar Heel and building a new Tar Heel Middle School. The plan would make Clarkton School of Discovery a fifth- through eighth-grade school; East Arcadia a K-4 school; Elizabethtown Primary a K-4 school; Bladen lakes a K-4 school; Elizabethtown Middle a fifth-through eighth-grade school; and Tar Heel a K-8 school.
“What we’ve heard from the community is that there is no desire to close any schools at any time,” Taylor said. That is the mantra we keep hearing. So our starting point is that we have to keep our towns in mind.”
Taylor added that, keeping Clarkton School of Discovery open and putting a new, larger school in Tar Heel will allow the school district to save money with personnel and building maintenance, as well as satisfy a majority of the residents.
“Tar Heel Middle is the oldest school building we have, so that’s why we started there,” Taylor said. “We need a new building (in Tar Heel); we need to get out of the business of maintaining older buildings.”
Taylor said the option outlined would save the district about $325,000 in personnel salaries and another $100,000 in utility costs.
He added that a new building in Tar Heel would cost $27 million, but there are also other district needs. Taylor pointed out that Bladen Lakes needs classroom expansion costing about $500,000 and multi-purpose buildings are needed at Bladenboro, Elizabethtown and Bladen Lakes primary schools. In addition, an upgrade in the cafeteria at Elizabethtown Primary and field houses at East Bladen and West are also necessary.
In total, Taylor said the cost for all projects would be $38 million and, including the interest, would take the final cost to about 56 million.
“There is an opportunity for us to address our future needs,” Taylor said. “But if we wait, it will only get more expensive.
“The $800-pound gorilla in the room is … how do we pay for all this?” Taylor added. He pointed out that revenue from lottery proceeds, capital outlay, performance contract, utility savings and input from both the county and Board of Education would amount to between $1.85 and $2.6 million per year over 25 years.
When Taylor finished, commissioners had a few questions.
Ashley Trivette asked about the history of tackling the problem of aging schools and consolidation. She was told there was discussion in 2012 for new construction, but it was dismissed in 2014 in an effort to retire the debt on the two high schools first. That debt concludes in 2020-21.
Arthur Bullock asked if there would be increased travel time for students at East Arcadia that will be sent to CSD or Elizabethtown Middle. Taylor said some students would see an increase, but a majority would not.
Peterson asked if CSD would exist as it is now with the plan, and Taylor said it would — with the only change being from a 6-8 school to a 5-8.
Peterson also asked if a private contractor could build the new Tar Heel building and lease it to the school district for a cheaper price tag. Taylor said, “Potentially, yes. We can run those numbers and see if it would be a savings that way.”
The two groups made no decisions Monday, but did say they would discuss the option separately and come back together soon.
W. Curt Vincent can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.