November 08, 2012
The Guilford County Board of Education its plans for a $72 million airport area high school having imploded on Monday, Nov. 5 switched to trying to sell Guilford County citizens on the idea of using the $72 million as a pool of money to repair and expand existing Guilford County Schools
In a public forum in the auditorium of Page High School, the school board tried to explain how it got in a $72 million mess and the options for using the money. "Money" is an exaggeration, because the $72 million is part of $457 million in school bonds approved by voters in May 2008. The bonds that would provide the money for the high school have not been sold by Guilford County.
The forum began with Guilford County Schools
Chief Information Officer Terrence Young telling the audience that he was going to attempt to explain "how we ended up where we are" never a good sign.
Young's job was to try to simultaneously justify the decision to build what was originally an $80 million high school, the school board's failure to do so, and the desire of the Guilford County Schools
Facilities Department to latch onto the $72 million and use it for fixing Guilford County public schools that have been allowed to decay, while the school system was spending astronomical amounts on building new and renovating old schools
School board Chairman Alan Duncan said repeatedly that the school board has not decided what to do about the airport area high school, which was intended to be the gem of the half-billion-dollar building program. And the paperwork Guilford County Schools
handed out listed numerous options.
The airport area high school, as described on the project list, would have been a 1,200-student school expandable to 1,400 students, would have included the purchase of between 105 and 150 acres for the high school and for a future airport area middle school, the construction funds for which were not on the project list. The school board tried to purchase two properties for the schools, but was prevented by opposition from High Point and Kernersville, respectively.
The future options for the failed high school/middle school project, according to the school system's handouts, include building a smaller high school; searching for separate, smaller properties for the high school and middle schools; buying land for the middle and high schools but building neither; changing the target location for the schools; building a middle school instead of a high school; and placing both the high school and middle school projects on hold.
The handouts included numerous enrollment projection charts to justify the school board's decision to build the high school and its likely decision to cancel it. Short version: The enrollment in Guilford County high schools had increased by more than 1,000 a year before the crash of 2008, but since then the yearly increase has dropped to a few hundred and shows no sign of returning to its previous levels.
That leaves the school board with a planned high school with no constituency or $74 million in mad money ($72 million for the high school and its land and $2 million for the land for the future middle school) minus the $3 million it has already spent on the high school project.
After the school board closes out the other 25 projects on the list for the 2008 school bonds, it will have much more than $74 million left over, once you figure in leftover money from completed projects, the budgets for which were substantially padded. Say $140 million as a working number. The school board will take the first $22.5 million in spending of the leftover money to the Guilford County Board of Commissioners on Nov. 15, 2012 for approval.
Duncan said, "Which is not going to be all the savings at the end of the day."
In other words, the school board is going to have oodles of money left over and is trying to decide where to spend it. If the audience at Page was any indication, most parents want the money spent at schools their children already attend.
That seemed to be the point of Young's presentation anyway. The airport area high school was intended to absorb new students that would have otherwise gone to Northwest High School, Southwest Guilford High School and Western Guilford HIgh School but as Young said, enrollment at those schools has leveled out.
Young said, "While some of our schools, yes, they do exceed the capacity of our designs, the excess is not significant."
It's an admission the school system did not make during its long effort to find land for the airport area high school.
The $22.5 million the school board will try to get the commissioners to approve on Nov. 15 is part of $75 million in repairs and expansions the Facilities Department has identified to spend in the first round of leftover money from the 2008 school bonds, and part of $1.2 billion Guilford County Schools
claims it will need in upcoming years. Where that money will come from if the economy doesn't improve is anybody's guess, as no one expects Guilford County voters to approve a new round of school bonds anytime soon.
If the school board was hoping for an army of supporters to take in front of the Board of Commissioners, either to support building the high school or to support spending the high school money on maintenance, the audience, although it leaned toward fixing current schools, was split.
Paul Ingram of Greensboro told the school board members that the way to alleviate crowding at Northwest and Southwest high schools was to renovate and expand Western. He said the principal of Western, Pete Kashubara, has done a good job of increasing test scores at Western, and that Western has the physical space to expand by adding classrooms. He said that Western has only one mobile building, which is used for physical education.
Ingram also said that Guilford County Schools
owns 10 acres adjacent to Western, and that there is more adjacent land that could be bought for an expansion. He said that Western has good traffic access, but has an undersized gym, auditorium and cafeteria.
"These issues really need to be addressed, but we could also add more classroom space," Ingram said. "I don't necessarily see an overcrowding problem at Western Guilford, but I do see ones at Northwest and Southwest."
Ingram also said that the stadium and the restrooms and concession stands at the softball and soccer fields at Western are not handicapped accessible.
Ingram's comments show a way out of the slight crowding at Northwest and Southwest. But they also show the problem that the school board is already facing that many Guilford County Schools
need improvements, and the inboxes of school board members are already filling up with requests for improvements at specific schools, many of them unrelated to the Northwest-Southwest-Western brouhaha.
At the school board's September retreat, the school board voted to spend $15 million of what will almost certainly be a much larger amount of money left over after the school board is done with the projects promised to voters in 2008. The school board instructed Guilford County Schools
Facilities Department administrators to come back with a recommendation on how to spend the money....continued on page 2