October 11, 2012
The Guilford County Board of Education on Tuesday, Oct. 9 gave up on trying to make a decision on whether or not to build a $72 million high school in western Guilford County.
The so-called "airport area high school" – although it quickly became apparent starting in 2008 that the school board, if it found land for the school, would put it nowhere near the airport – was supposed to be the crown jewel of the school board's $457 building program, which is funded by school bonds approved by Guilford County voters in May 2008.
Instead, the high school became a millstone around the school board's neck as the school board, its committees and the Guilford County Schools Facilities Department made mistake after mistake in their pursuit of a monstrous 125-acre complex that would have eventually contained not only the high school, but a middle school not on the project list for the 2008 building program. The land for the middle school was expected to cost an additional $2 million, bringing the total for the complex to $74 million, plus the future cost of building the middle school.
The school board on Tuesday voted 7 to 2 to punt on the high school by proceeding "at an appropriate pace" to buy land for the high school and middle school and to hold two forums to get public input on whether to build the high school or use the $69 million (the school board has already spent or committed almost $3 million on the failed high school project) left to maintain and upgrade the school system's 122 existing schools.
Now they want public input.
For four years, the school board has pursued its $74 million dream in secret, dealing with it in closed sessions and obscure committee meetings. Originally it was an $82 million dream, but that included a wing for autistic students that was later moved to another school.
Over four years, the school board tried to buy two sites for the high school.
The first site was on land south of I-40, near Boylston Road just east of Bunker Hill Road between the High Point city limits and the interstate. High Point officials killed that site, – which was on land that High Point will eventually annex and plans to use for industrial development – by refusing to guarantee sewer service for the site which forced the school board to look for land north of I-40.
The school board then optioned land in the Triad Business Park in the part of western Guilford County that has been annexed into Kernersville. The Kernersville Board of Aldermen voted unanimously on June 5, 2012 to deny the zoning changes necessary to build the school in the industrial park.
By that time, the school board had apparently given up on the Kernersville site. At the June 5 hearing in Kernersville, neither Guilford County School Superintendent nor any school board member showed up to defend the proposal.
It's a different world for the airport area high school now.
One thing that is different is the lack of land for the school. Another is the election of school board member Ed Price, who at a school board meeting on June 28, 2012 became the first to say that the emperor had no clothes.
"I haven't seen a swell of support on this," said Price, who is from High Point. "I see $72 million worth of expenses, and $72 million would repair a bunch of our problems in a bunch of our existing schools. I could spend $10 million at High Point Central and Northwest and Andrews. Is this school needed now?"
It was the first time in four years that a school board member had publicly taken a stand against the airport area high school. At Tuesday's meeting, school board member Amos Quick said, "I think I've been fairly consistently against this high school since I think it was [former construction consultant] Joe Hill brought it to us at what was $82 million dollars at the time."
If that's true, Quick has been awfully quiet about his opposition for the last four years. If he has made a public statement against the high school, it has gone unnoticed, and no other school board member has gone on record against the high school.
That remained true not only after it became clear that the school board didn't have land for the school, but after it became clear that the enrollment projections that justified the high school were no longer accurate.
As recently as September 2008, Guilford County Schools was projecting that it would need 13,800 new seats for students by the 2017-2018 school year. Now, the projected enrollment has dropped by half – and Guilford County Schools has had to push it three years into the future, to 2020-2021, to get even the 6,350 number.
On Sept. 22, the Facilities Department recommended spending $26.5 million on school maintenance that is left over from 10 construction projects administrators were willing to close out – the first installment of oodles of money the school board will have left over after the building program. The $26.5 million was part of $75 million in spending administrators recommended – a number suspiciously close to the proposed cost of the airport area high school. The school board voted to spend $15 million.
Tuesday night, interim head of the Facilities Department Terrence Young, and Executive Director of Facilities Planning and Construction Robert Melton came to the school board with a plan to spend the $15 million on maintenance projects, mostly roofing, security system and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) projects.
The likelihood that the school board members could limit themselves to spending $15 million of the $26.5 million immediately available seemed slim-to-none, which proved to be the case.
School board member Darlene Garrett made a motion for staff to come up with a new list to spend up to $25 million on maintenance projects. Price seconded it. Garrett argued that the November elections could generate a Guilford County Board of Commissioners that would snatch millions of dollars away from the school board before it could be spent.
School board Chairman Alan Duncan said he could not bring himself to spend $25 million. He said, "To me, the elections are not persuasive at all, because we have to go through the county commissioners anyway." Duncan said he could live with spending $21.5 million.
Price, the only real estate agent on the board and an inveterate haggler, said, "Would you be happy at 22-five? We're kind of negotiating a house here."
Duncan said, "I would agree with that." Garrett and Price agreed and the school board voted 9 to 0 to spend that much money. School board members Paul Daniels and Carlvena Foster were absent.
That's when Duncan hesitantly and delicately brought up the possibility of spending the $69 million in remaining airport area high school money on "other projects in the district." Duncan suggested getting public comment to decide whether voters would be heartbroken if they didn't get the airport area high school.
The outcome of that input, like the school board's eventual decision, is almost a foregone conclusion. Guilford County residents and school board members have a choice of spending $69 million on schools in their communities or districts, or spending it on what Quick called, "This imaginary school ... that we've been talking about since 2007." The airport area high school has never had any particular constituency....continued on page 2