It’s not elementary: Garner needs middle school, councilman says

kjahner@newsobserver.comAugust 19, 2013 

Nearly a quarter of a proposed $940 million Wake County school construction plan would build and renovate schools in Garner, but some have expressed disappointment that a Garner-area middle school won’t be among the projects.

A proposed bond would fund a new high school ($62 million) and elementary school ($22 million), as well as renovations to Garner Magnet High School ($67 million) and Vandora Springs Elementary School ($24 million). The overall construction plan, which would be largely funded by the $810 million bond, will build 16 new schools across Wake, fully renovate five more, and provide other upgrades and replacements.

The new elementary school would be located on Bryan Road in southeast Garner. The district plans to build a middle school on another part of that same property, which the district has owned since 2007. It was not among three new middle schools to be built using the bond money.

“It was a surprise to hear that it was going to the elementary school,” Garner Councilman Gra Singleton said of the bond money. “We need a new middle school because half the kids in Garner traditional (calendar) school go to Dillard Drive in Cary.”

But the school district sees the choice differently. WCPSS Assistant Superintendent of Facilities Joe Desormeaux noted a shifting philosophy with the construction bond effort.

Initially, the goal was to both fix overcrowding in a county with many mobile classrooms, as well as build new schools to handle growth. But that $2 billion effort proved too ambitious, and cuts had to be made to make the bond palatable to voters. So now WCPSS is merely try to accommodate growth, which means mobile classrooms are here to stay.

Desormeaux also pointed out that a middle school costs roughly twice as much to build as an elementary school, so more than just the proposed elementary school on Bryan Road would need to be cut from the proposal. And the decision to build three other new middle schools and two high schools in higher-growth areas than Garner – for example, near Interstate 540 and U.S. 401 – took up the middle schools.

“You’ve got to draw that funding line somewhere. There are things past that funding line that we really wish we could do,” said Desormeaux.

He said a Bryan Road middle school would be designed in advance of the next bond referendum. It just couldn’t be funded.

Wake County assignment maps show that the vast majority of Garner falls under either North Garner or East Garner middle schools. (A small node in the northern corner of Garner in the Cloverdale area is assigned to Holly Ridge Middle School). But because North Garner is a year-round school, many Garner students whose parents prefer a traditional calendar end up at Dillard Drive in Cary, at least 8-10 miles and 15-20 minutes away from most of Garner.

Jill Cottengim teaches at Garner Magnet High School, as she has for 19 years. The Garner native supports the bond, but also wants to keep her 10-year-old twin daughters at Vandora Springs Elementary in Garner and on a traditional schedule like the high school.

Keep kids on same path

“The biggest part to me is keeping our kids in our community,” the longtime teacher said, echoing sentiments shared by Singleton as well as other parents.

As a teacher, Cottengim said she’d also like to see students coming to the high school from a magnet and International Baccalaureate middle school like East Garner.

East Garner can’t necessarily accept all the kids in Garner. According to the 2012-13 school utilization report, East Garner was at 94 percent capacity based on total classrooms, which includes 21 mobile classrooms. With 41 percent of classroom capacity in temporary classrooms, that strains common spaces like cafeterias, auditoriums and hallways designed for smaller schools. The school sits at 136 percent of the district’s long-range capacity goal.

North Garner, the assigned, year-round middle school, shows below 80 percent utilization.

Singleton pointed out that most of East Garner Magnet’s students come from outside of Garner. East Garner’s primary territory covers everything due east, southeast and south of the school to the county line.

It also includes neighborhoods in Southeast Raleigh outside of the beltline and Walnut Creek Amphitheater, including neighborhoods around Barwell Road Elementary School.

Garner has a mix of seven elementary schools in the town and area immediately surrounding it.

“We don’t need a new elementary school, we need a new middle school,” Singleton said.

Jahner: 919-829-4822; @garnercleveland

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