Decision time has come for the Guilford County Board of Education, which has to decide what to do with the millions left over from the $457 million bond package approved by voters in May 2008. The largest lump sum is $70 million originally intended for a new airport area high school, and tens of millions more will be left over from other projects in the construction program.
The leading Guilford County Schools proposal would spend much of the money on computers and other short-term equipment rather than long-term improvements to schools.
The school board held two public forums on the issue of whether or not it should keep trying to build the high school, for which it has been unable to find land, the most recent on Wednesday, Nov. 28 at Southwest Guilford High School. It has also solicited comments from the public. And some of the school board members representing schools that need maintenance and expansions are getting an earful from supporters of those schools.
The school board had originally intended to build an $80 million high school on more than 100 acres of land in western Guilford County, reserving some of the land for a future middle school. After the failure to find land, the Guilford County Schools Facilities Department came up with a plan to spend $76 million on maintenance at 91 of the school system's 124 schools.
The comments that have come in so far, at the forums and in emails to the school system, lean toward spending the money on existing schools, instead of building the airport area high school.
Brent Irwin wrote the school system, "Due to more stabilized enrollment patterns and high priority maintenance needs at existing schools, I would STRONGLY support NOT moving forward with the new high school or middle school projects."
That seems to be the attitude of most of the school board members, too. School board Chairman Alan Duncan has said that the school board, having promised a high school before the 2008 school bond referendum, might ought to deliver one – but most school board members have said more about how the money should be spent on other schools than in support of the proposed high school.
The airport area high school was intended to absorb new students that would have otherwise gone to Northwest Guilford, Southwest Guilford and Western Guilford high schools – but enrollment at those schools has leveled out.
Karen Bolyard wrote the school board asking for an update on the airport area high school.
"Also what would that do for redistricting?" she asked. "I think it's terrible that the west side of Hwy 220 is assigned to Northern Middle School and Northern High School when those areas are so much closer to Northwest Schools. Summerfield (at least some of it) should filter into NW schools not Northern. Or even assign the west side of 220 to Oak Ridge Elementary. That is much more sensible in my opinion.
"Please let me know if they may change this. Also the NW High principal told me they are not as crowded as they once were in the past and they actually have several open classrooms for the first time in many years."
One problem with the airport area high school plan was that most of the school's students would have come from Northwest Guilford High School, the best-performing regular, non-academy high school in the school system – in other words, a school no one is trying to escape.
With the airport area high school project almost certainly dead, the best guide to what the school board intends to do is the $75 million Facilities Department wish list. But some schools are not on the wish list, and supporters of those schools are not going to be happy, as the school board found out on Nov. 5, when it held a public forum at High Point Central High School, one of the schools left off the list, and one whose supporters said it needed expansions and renovations.
If the angry response from High Point Central supporters was any indication, the list of the schools on which the millions would be spent was compiled by the Facilities Department without consulting with schools, making it possible that millions will be misspent.
At the High Point Central forum, school board member Sandra Alexander wouldn't answer a question about who in the Facilities Department she had contacted about construction priorities. That matters, because heavy turnover at the top in the Facilities Department has left the top two positions filled by people who don't have the knowledge to make such decisions.
Terrence Young, who is normally the school system's information technology director, but who has been acting chief operations officer since the retirement of Andy LaRowe in September, has no background in construction. Executive Director of Facilities Planning Robert Melton is experienced, but moved to Guilford County when he was hired by Guilford County Schools in May 2011. It's unlikely that he has even visited every school in the county.
The Facilities Department spending list, in addition to leaving off some schools with great needs, includes things that most school principals probably don't consider the kind of maintenance and expansion their schools need.
Of the $75 million only about $33 million would go to construction of any sort, namely roofing, paving, electrical upgrades, windows and doors and improvements to athletic facilities.
The other $42 million or so would go toward technology: $19 million for heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems, security alarms, cameras, voice-over-Internet Protocol phone systems, computers and audio and video equipment.
Even if you lump the HVAC systems in with construction, that would leave the school board spending $23 million on computers and other equipment that depreciates faster than just about anything on the planet. That's bound to anger supporters of schools such as High Point Central who argue that their schools need more space and more intensive repairs. You would think it would be easier to sell long-term construction fixes than short-term gear.
Guilford County voters approved almost $1 billion in school bonds in three referendums in 2000, 2003 and 2008. Parkview Elementary School in High Point, despite being on the project list for the 2003 bonds, is an example of a school whose community may want improvements.
Retired Parkview Principal Vicki Miller, after hearing that the school board would consider maintenance projects at its September 2012 retreat, wrote school board members Carlvena Foster and Ed Price, who represent High Point, asking for improvements at Parkview. She wrote that, during construction, she was told that two of the six classrooms that were promised to voters in the run-up to the 2003 bond referendum were being cancelled.
Miller wrote that there was a year delay in the Parkview project because a water table/soil study on the property was overlooked, and that, because the school board spent money on other projects and the price of steel rose during the delay, only two classrooms were finished. She said she got the extra classrooms by offering rooms from the administrative wing. Miller wrote that Parkview, which is now Parkview Village Elementary Expressive Arts Magnet School, had a hard time attracting students to a magnet program that was taught in trailers.
Miller wrote that, years later, the administrative rooms are still classrooms and a "temporary" metal wall left where the originally planned classrooms were to be added later is still there, and lighting in the old part of Parkview has not been modernized to match the lighting in the new space as promised.
Parkview is on the $75 million maintenance list for a $865,000 roof – but not for the other improvements. Parkview is just one example of how schools will have to compete for whatever money is left over from the 2008 projects, and from the airport area high school, if it isn't built. Supporters of schools such as Parkview and High Point Central will have to be very squeaky wheels to get all they want for their schools.
For a complete list of the schools and amounts the Facilities Department proposes to spend the $75 million on, visit www.rhinotimes.net. The school board has not voted on what to do about the high school – or the money: