Scruggs’ claims on bond challenged

kjahner@newsobserver.comSeptember 21, 2013 

— District 2 school board candidate Matt Scruggs said the board should invest more in “our kids” rather than “into the schools,” and that the bond up for a vote on Oct. 8 represents waste.

Others say they’re often one an the same, and the bond is needed to address crowding and growth.

On an issue with seemingly infinite variables, angles and emotional appeals, parsing realities can prove more difficult than crafting a slogan.

The $810 million bond measure would help fund nearly $940 million in capital improvements countywide, much of them in Garner. The town council, mayor and Scruggs’ opponent, Monika Johnson-Hostler, all support the bond. So does the current school board, including current District 2 member, Garner Republican John Tedesco.

At a Sept. 10 candidate forum in Fuquay-Varina, Scruggs said he has not broken down details and figures, but has laid out areas where he is certain major savings can be found.

WCPSS assistant superintendent of facilities Joe Desormeaux said in general the savings people think they could easily find don’t always prove so simple.

“It’s interesting to hear the suggestions we hear. They’re good ideas but they’re things we’re already doing,” Desormeaux said.

Garner Magnet High School principal Drew Cook said the school would cope with whatever resources are granted by the taxpayers, but also outlined various ways facility problems can directly impact academic progress.

“We problem-solve, we troubleshoot. We don’t make excuses. But at some point in time, people break down, and facilities break down,” Cook said. “And the more we keep asking (teachers and students) to do more with less, I think logic dictates there is going to be diminishing returns.”

Hunting for savings

Scruggs’s position mirrors conservative groups like Taxpayers for Wake County. He blasted what he called inaccurate growth projections, expensive designs and assignment plans that don’t take advantage of available class space.

“We have schools here in Fuquay that are at 40 percent capacity ... I think you can fix (overcrowding) in school assignment and you don’t have to worry about spending $810 million to build schools,” said Scruggs, a neighborhood schools advocate.

According to the 2012-13 utilization report, no Fuquay-Varina elementary school had less than 68 percent utilization. The middle and high school were each over 89 percent, even with temporary classrooms considered.

Desormeaux said new schools weren’t being built near under-utilized ones. The roughly 149,000-student county system has 7,000 more open seats than students (which includes temporary space), the vast majority of which are in year-round schools that many parents spurn, he said.

Currently, 27,000 classroom seats are in temporary buildings (which have higher maintenance costs) primarily at schools with aged or overwhelmed building infrastructure.

“We’re barely building enough seats to match the growth; we’re still going to need the mobiles,” Desormeaux said, adding that reassignment to distant, under-utilized schools has been unpopular.

Desormeaux said the recession explained much of the 2006 growth over-estimate Scruggs cited, and said that the localized projections proved proportionally accurate. He added that in 2004, estimates actually came in low, and noted that the numbers don’t just come from the school system but municipalities and a collaboration of experts constantly adjusting for new variables.

Johnson-Hostler, while sympathetic to Scruggs’ concern for managing taxpayer money responsibly, said the bond was needed both for capacity and quality in District 2.

“While the bond does include growth for schools like Garner that need capacity, it also includes renovations and upgrades that are necessary for our children to have access to technology and high-speed Internet,” Johnson-Hostler said.

Scruggs says he’s not opposed to all new schools, but he questions construction costs, pointing out cheaper schools built in Johnston County. He points to design costs on each individual school, suggesting there should be a template.

Desormeaux says those templates exist, and that Johnston County had varying situations that allowed for lower costs, among them excess land that allowed shorter and cheaper buildings, smaller schools (Johnston’s biggest high school, Clayton, would be one of the smallest in Wake County), and lower construction costs in general.

“A couple years ago, we had several board meetings,” Desormeaux said. “That group tried to compare schools across different school systems to identify benchmarks against others, and find good ways to save money. It’s very difficult to get apples-to-apples comparisons.”

In addition, Scruggs wants private options better explored. Desormeaux said that would fall under the purview of Wake County commissioners and not school leaders, and the county was pursuing every avenue available.

Can-do attitude

Garner High, which has 2,436 students ina school initially built for 800 and with a capacity (minus mobiles) of 1,847, hasn’t seen renovations in decades.

Last year fire-alarm systems interrupted school about six times, Cook said, robbing instructional time. And that was after a clearing of bad sensors the year before – such interruptions used to happen much more often, Cook said.

Next January, a freshman center will open in an old movie theater across the street and in several more mobile units. It will alleviate space constraints, but not address the inadequacies of the hallways, cafeteria, gym and auditorium.

“Yeah, we’ve got the capacity to cut down some more trees and roll in some more trailers. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think that is taking care of the problem. It’s not about the classroom space,” Cook said.

If the bond passes, Garner High would move to a new school to be completed in South Garner in 2016. Then the old high school will be mostly razed and rebuilt in a $67 million project, one that strikes Scruggs as too expensive.

Cook said that, regardless of the bond’s outcome, the school can’t let students make excuses for failure, and he and his staff won’t set an example by doing so either.

“We’re going to do it anyway. We have to have that attitude,” he said.

Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland

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