Brunswick County leaders remain split on timing of school bond

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Brunswick County manager Ann Hardy delivers a closer look at the impact the bond could have on taxpayers during a joint meeting of the county commissioners and the school board Tuesday. Photo by Hilary Snow.
Brunswick County manager Ann Hardy delivers a closer look at the impact the bond could have on taxpayers during a joint meeting of the county commissioners and the school board Tuesday. Photo by Hilary Snow.

Brunswick County officials remain split on a proposed education bond referendum next year to address immediate and future building needs.

But for those against the $152 million measure, it’s not the money that’s the problem; it’s the timing.

In a continuing discussion on the bond, county commissioners and board of education members met Tuesday night for what was intended to be a presentation and sharing of ideas.

“It’s non-adversarial,” Brunswick County Schools superintendent Les Tubb said at the start of Tuesday’s meeting. “It’s a talk.”

Instead, commissioners raised their concerns–and some criticisms–about the district’s push to ask county residents to take on the debt of school construction.

“If five of us have questions, what’s 115,000 going to do,” Scott Phillips, chairman of the Brunswick County Board of Commissioners, said.

In order to pose the bond to those 115,000 voters, county commissioners must first consent to allow it on the 2016 ballot. The bond, whittled down from $175 million, includes 12 projects, key among them a new middle school in Town Creek.

As the northern part of the county continues to grow at a rapid pace, Tubb said all schools in that area but one, Belville Elementary, are expected to reach maximum capacity in the next three to five years.

North Brunswick High, for example, is just about 150 students shy of hitting its max of 1,205 by 2020. Enrollment projections show that school reaching more than 1,500 students by 2024.

On the other end of the county, West Brunswick High, too, is pushing its limit, with 1,394 students and a capacity of only 1,305.

“Now, these numbers are not just numbers we’ve pulled out of the air,” Tubb said, noting that the district recently hired a demographer to compile the data.

In an effort to ease commissioners’ worries, the district has pitched a bond that would be issued in three portions, with the highest-priority projects addressed in the first issuance.

A Town Creek middle school would be among the first projects, along with classroom additions at West Brunswick High and Town Creek Elementary and the start of districtwide improvements to athletic fields, technology infrastructures and security systems, along with general building repairs and upgrades.

District leaders would also like to build an early college high school and a technical high school on the campus of Brunswick Community College in 2022. Brunswick County Early College High School already operates on that campus but is located in the top floor of an existing building.

Other projects include the replacement of the K-2 wing at Waccamaw School and improvements to playground equipment, technology infrastructure and security systems at all schools.

The impact of the bond on a tax bill for a $200,000 home would be an increase of approximately $76 annually. Or to put it more “simply,” Tubb said, it would break down to $6.32 a month or $1.58 per week, the cost of “a cup of coffee or a bottle of water.”

But it isn’t quite that simple, county manager Ann Hardy said.

Since the county is still paying off the district’s $83 million bond in 1999, Hardy said there would be some overlap in paying both old and new debt, meaning tax rates could be much higher during certain years.

Considering what they would be asking citizens to take on, commissioners went through the line items of bond projects with a critical eye Tuesday. Frank Williams questioned how the school board had arrived at a $22 million price tag for the Town Creek middle school.

“I’m asking because I don’t want you to build a Rolls Royce when a mid-level Chevy will do,” he said.

“We’re not,” Tubb countered.

Craig Eckert, director of capital projects and planning, said the planned school is based on the layout and size of neighboring Town Creek Elementary. The district already owns the land needed to construct a middle school adjacent to the elementary campus.

“I think this is about making sure we use common sense logic when we are designing…so we get the best bang for our buck,” Phillips said.

Commissioner Randy Thompson, who said he has heard overwhelming support from the community regarding a vocational education high school, asked if district officials had given any thought to reconfiguring Brunswick County Academy for that purpose. The underutilized site, classified as an alternative school, could hold 345 students but has an enrollment of about 125 students. If it was reclassified with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction as a traditional school, it could hold 550 students.

Tubb acknowledged that revamping the academy was a “conversation that has been going on for about four or five months.”

Finding a creative way to create a desired program outside of the bond, Thompson continued, would send a message to voters that county officials were working together to keep as much burden off of taxpayers as possible.

Further, Thompson said residents needed some assurance that they weren’t going to have to go through another referendum down the road.

“People are going to want to know, what’s your future plan? Are you going to come back later and want more?” he asked.

Commissioner Marty Cooke agreed.

“Y’all haven’t even looked at redistricting. I don’t think we’ve looked into everything we could possibly do…This looks like something you could also put together any time. I look at a bond as something where we’ve exhausted every possibility every resource,” he argued. “I’m looking at stuff that could probably have been generated three years ago or five years from now…We have to be able to say we have exhaustively examined this and we have no options…we have no choice but to go to a bond.”

The district is already at that point, school board member John Thompson said.

“We have been in dire straits with capital needs for many years…we’re out of options. We don’t have a fund balance we can go to and build a building. That’s why we’re here…we as a board have decided that it is time to act.”

“But your board is split,” Cooke fired back.

Cooke pointed to disharmony among school board members on the bond. Two—chairman Catherine Cooke, who is his wife, and Charlie Miller—are against the measure.

“In 1999, everyone was unified,” he said, referencing the district’s last bond referendum. “What we have is a divided board. And you have a commission that has more questions than answers.”

That being said, Cooke added that commissioners were “not saying no.”

“We’re saying not now,” he noted.

Like his wife, Catherine, and Miller, Cooke wants to wait until 2018 to introduce the bond referendum.

“I think voters should decide, not five school board members or five county commissioners,” Thorsen said.

In order to add the bond referendum to the November 2016 ballot, commissioners must approve it by July. While commissioners weren’t prepared Tuesday to vote on the issue, Phillips assured the school board they wouldn’t wait that long to make a decision.

“Between now and the time it has to go on a ballot,” he said, “hopefully we can get some feedback on points that were brought up tonight.”

Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at hilary.s@portcitydaily.com.