Longleaf launches with Garner plans on pause

kjahner@newsobserver.comSeptember 3, 2013 

After exploring Garner as a possible location last school year, Longleaf School of the Arts has officially opened in downtown Raleigh – for now.

The school and Garner hope it can ultimately relocate to the Avery Street Annex behind the Garner Performing Arts Center. Although town staff thinks the two parties will come to terms, finding new space for Wake County Public Schools, which leases some of the Garner-owned classrooms, has become a stubborn complication.

“We’re reasonably close to an agreement with Longleaf. The issue remains how to get Wake County Public Schools out of the building,” Town Manager Hardin Watkins said.

The new school, emphasizing visual and performing arts in its curriculum, had initially hoped to open this year with 300 students in grades nine and 10. School founder and assistant head of school Emily Orr said the school decided to cap enrollment at 200 because of space limitations at the Hargett Street facility, and reached that limit about two weeks before school started.

She also said the phone has been ringing off the hook during the first weeks of school as more and more parents have learned about the school.

“We are extremely happy with where we are,” Orr said after a week-plus of school. “Over the weekend, we had a dozen parents sending us emails saying things like ‘Thank you, I’ve never had a child this excited about school before.’ ”

Orr acknowledged that some parents will be apprehensive about sending children to a school before its reputation has been established, not to mention before a final location has been chosen. But she said there had been no complaints and the first two weeks had gone as well as could be expected.

“In a year, we’re going to have a waiting list. If parents are waiting I could see them being disappointed,” Orr said.

She also said parents haven’t been asking about location since school started.

The school eventually plans to level off at 450 students.

Getting WCPSS out

Garner, Longleaf and WCPSS have had little substantive dialogue this summer as the charter school geared up for inaugural classes. Garner also awaited the fate of General Assembly legislation that would have given Wake County Commissioners control of school facilities. Watkins said commissioners had exhibited more interest and cooperation than WCPSS regarding efforts to relocate WCPSS storage and training programs currently housed at the Annex.

Watkins said neither the town nor school could afford to build or rent a brand new building for WCPSS, which has a lease to use 11 classrooms for the next 21 years.

One option involved a vacant former sheriff deputy training center on Garner Road in the Auburn community. Watkins said the town could get that building in comparable shape to the Annex.

WCPSS assistant superintendent for facilities Joe Desormeaux said the schools had no problem moving into a facility as good for the county as the Annex. That sets an admittedly low standard; the location isn’t central to the county, and the Annex building requires massive renovations before it’s Longleaf-ready.

But the Auburn site sits about 4 miles east on Garner Road, even closer to the county border. Watkins said the town calculated the change in distance from every zip code in the county; the shift would add an average of one minute and 10 seconds. The slight distance stems largely from the two being a similar distance from the same exit of I-40 – the nearest highway.

Desormeaux countered that the Annex was already too far out, and added other complaints, such as questions about the site’s sewer system.

“County staff gave us the impression that we didn’t really want that place. The place is kind of in disrepair,” Desormeaux said. “We’re trying to find a place with them; there’s just not a lot of things available, at least not within the reach of the Town of Garner.”

Getting Longleaf in

The town and Longleaf paused their dialogue in the spring just as they were nearing an agreement on renovation and lease terms.

Garner wants Longleaf to sign a 10-year lease that would allow the town to fully recoup the cost of renovations, which could total more than $1 million. Negotiations would continue regarding the exact length of repayment and the specifics of what the new school would look like.

Watkins said the town and school were pretty close in principle. David Dahl, the Longleaf board member most focused on finding a facility, did not return calls seeking comment.

“We’ve invested in the architectural and design stuff,” Watkins said. “We are definitely still interested in making it work for them in Garner for year two or three, whichever they plan on pursuing.”

Renovations to the Annex itself could cost between $400,000 and $500,000. Another $150,000 to $200,000 would add class space at the nearby Cannery on the site next to the Avery Street Gym.

A new paved parking lot could cost another $250,000, and hundreds of thousands more could be spent on new turn lanes on roads servicing the school to facilitate increased traffic.

Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @GarnerCleveland.

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