School overcrowding still plaguing Harnett leaders

District, county officials meet to address rapid growth issues
Jul. 24, 2013 @ 05:02 AM

Due to public school overcrowding in western Harnett County, the school district is relying on hundreds of trailers for extra classroom space and is also busing some elementary students to schools far from home. With growth continuing at a rapid pace, officials are searching for ways to raise the millions of dollars needed just to catch up.

The Harnett County Board of Education and Board of County Commissioners met Tuesday in Lillington to discuss the issues and to hear public comments. About 20 community members attended the meeting, many of them from the Building a Better Harnett group that began earlier this year to lobby for more school funding and to raise awareness about the overcrowding.

Building a brand new school is an expensive and lengthy process, and and district officials say at least a half dozen are needed as soon as possible. With funding at a premium, there’s talk of raising sales taxes or even creating a new municipality in order to collect more property revenue. Officials are also considering quicker and less expensive solutions like expanding existing schools or turning vacant buildings into functioning schools.

A quarter-cent sales tax increase would bring Harnett County’s rate to 7 percent, the same as in Lee and Cumberland counties. At Tuesday’s meeting, officials from both boards said they personally supported that adjustment, but they noted it is ultimately up to the citizens, who have voted down similar proposals four times since 2007. However, they came to the consensus that if people are better educated about what the tax hike will be used for — funding new schools — more people will support it.

Jaysen Yochim, an officer at Fort Bragg who lives in Harnett County and gave a presentation during Tuesday’s meeting, said he personally voted against the sales tax increase the last time it was on the ballot, but that he did so thinking it was a general tax hike. Had he known it would’ve gone to the schools, he said, he would’ve supported it.

Yochim said his neighborhood of Lexington Plantation is one of the biggest contributors to the county’s recent explosion in growth in the western part of the county, and it’s still going; the development and Anderson Creek, another nearby development, could still add as many as 7,000 more homes.

Those neighborhoods are key parts of the so-called Highway 87 Corridor stretching in the southwest pocket of the county between Sanford and Fayetteville, which is the area adding the most students due to Fort Bragg growth. Yochim said Harnett County planning officials have told him that all in all, the western part of the county has room for about 15,700 more homes.

If those were all to sell, Yochim said, that could mean up to 11,000 more students entering the school system — more than the entire enrollment of Lee County Schools, which has 16 schools — and he joined several others in questioning why the county would allow such growth before the proper infrastructure was in place.

Kevin Gregory, the school board member who represents that quickly growing western portion of the county, also pressed county officials about allowing so much development without schools and other services in place. He said he supports the sales tax increase, and he also suggested putting school construction bond referendums up for a vote and incorporating the Anderson Creek area to bring in more property tax revenue.

Jim Burgin, chairman of the county commissioners, said officials have already had some preliminary discussions about incorporating a new municipality in that area. That’s still a long way from being definitive, and he said that in the meantime, he would not be in favor of raising the county’s property taxes — but that a sales tax increase did seem fair.

Burgin also said there’s a property inside Lexington Plantation big enough to hold an elementary school, and the developer might be willing to let a school be built there because it would be a great selling point for potential homeowners.

Superintendent Tom Frye said that would be a perfect solution for the schools as well because it would save money on transportation, so Burgin said he’d have county staff look into acquiring the land.

After four hours, the boards recessed to set a number of plans in motion, including:

• Forming a team of architects and engineers to look into the possibility and cost of expanding or rehabilitating existing schools.

• Looking into acquiring outside money for school construction, like grants from the state or from the Department of Defense for which the district might qualify.

• Possibly steering more high school students interested in vocational education toward dual enrollment programs at Central Carolina Community College, which would give them a head start while also freeing up some room in high school classrooms.

• Voicing a shared desire to meet jointly more often, so that each side will be more aware of the other’s needs and constraints.