Families feel squeeze with school overcrowding

Jun. 15, 2013 @ 05:01 AM

If Maggy Gray had known how overcrowded Harnett County public schools are, she said, she and her family would’ve never bought a house anywhere in the county. But they didn’t know, and now Gray, who has lived in Anderson Creek for the past year, is trying to change that situation.

Gray’s husband is stationed at Fort Bragg, and she’s a stay-at-home mom with three young children. Families like theirs are the main reason the county’s public school system is strained — Fort Bragg has seen a large influx of personnel in recent years, with much of the growth spilling over into western Harnett County — and the 34-year-old Gray said earlier this month that she wishes the county government and the school district had kept up with the growth better.

“We were like, ‘Wait a second, you’re building all these homes, but there’s no infrastructure,’” she said, adding that she and most of her neighbors go to Sanford or Fayetteville to shop and eat out, but that they obviously can’t do the same for public school.

The Harnett County Board of Commissioners did allocate $30 million last year for a new middle school in the Buffalo Lakes area just south of Lee County, scheduled to open in 2015. Harnett County Schools Superintendent Tom Frye said that was a much-needed addition, but that the area also needs another elementary and high school. To keep up with growth just in the next 10 years, he said in early June, the county as a whole needs at least five new schools.

According to County Manager Tommy Burns, the county is growing by “scary” amounts. Between 2000 and 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Harnett County grew from 91,025 residents to 122,135 — an increase of more than 25 percent. Burns said last week that by 2025, the county is projected to grow by an additional 56 percent.

“We definitely have some growing pains,” Burns said. Frye said for the school district, those growing pains are mainly found between Spring Lake and Sanford.

“We noticed right away that most of the new enrollees were coming from the Highway 87 corridor, especially the Lexington Plantation area,” Frye said.

One Lexington Plantation resident, Maj. Jaysen Yochim, 40, moved there last year with his wife and three young children after transferring to Fort Bragg; he said many families in the area have issues with the school system. His children, for example, are zoned for Overhills Elementary School but were going to be bused to Anderson Creek Primary/South Harnett Elementary School last year because Overhills was full (and has been since the day it opened, Frye said).

But just two days before school started, Yochim said, he was told his children would instead be bused to Boone Trail Elementary School in the Lillington area. Two weeks later, another letter came, offering the chance to switch to Overhills. They made the switch to be closer to home, Yochim said, but the recent realignment announcement threw them for a loop once more: Their eldest is going to middle school next year, but their rising third-grader will be moved out of Overhills and sent back to Boone Trail.

“I personally, specifically, moved down here to get some stability,” Yochim said. “I wanted my kids to get to know the kids they’re going to school with. But this is the most unstable school situation they’ve ever been in.”

In North Carolina, schools can only be built if the county commissioners vote to provide the funding, which generally comes through loans, bonds or tax increases. Since 2007, Harnett County voters have rejected four referendums for a sales tax increase that could’ve helped the county pay for schools or other projects.

So with no tax increase, and with the county commissioners putting a premium on saving money — Burns said the county has a 16 percent fund balance; the state requires counties to hold 8 percent of their budgets in reserve — Frye said school officials had no choice but the temporary fix of transferring students in the most overcrowded schools to less overcrowded ones. The move will even free up some room at Overhills Elementary, Frye said, which will let students who are zoned for Overhills but have been bused to Anderson Creek/Southern Harnett to return to Overhills.

Gray said that while her own school-aged children — a rising kindergartener and fourth grader — won’t be affected by the various busing plans, she feels for those, like the Yochim children, who are facing uncertainty and potentially long bus rides.

Frye said he sympathizes with those who don’t like the realignment plan and agrees that it’s an imperfect solution. But the number-one goal is safety, he said, which is easier achieved by putting students in brick-and-mortar buildings than in mobile units — outlying trailers that can’t be locked down as well and don’t provide as much protection from the elements.

Like Gray and Yochim, Frye said he’s anxious for a more permanent solution and has slightly more hope because the school board passed a resolution June 3 supporting a sales tax referendum specifically for the schools. Frye said he’s well aware that the last four referendums were unsuccessful, but he said they were just general tax hikes. Having something specific and tangible like new schools tied to the referendum might garner more support, he said.

Gray also said she was pleased with the school board’s resolution, and until the next big event on her calendar — a July 23 joint meeting between the county and the schools — she said she’s going to keep drumming up interest in a Facebook page she started, called Building a Better Harnett, which she uses to lobby for more schools and school funding.

“People seem pretty geared up to go,” Gray said. “We want to show people this isn’t just about raising taxes and taking people’s money. We need something for our children.”