Need for new school tops Lee BOE agenda

Mar. 08, 2013 @ 05:01 AM

With every single local public elementary school at or above capacity, and with officials worried about both logistics and safety, the Lee County Board of Education will officially begin discussions about building a new K-5 school this coming Tuesday.

John Bonardi, chairman of the school board’s Facilities and Technology Committee, said he has tentatively eyed the old Jonesboro Elementary School campus for the site of a new school — a construction project that has been on the school district’s back burner for years as officials recognized the need but dealt with more pressing concerns, such as the construction of Southern Lee High School and SanLee Middle School and massive renovations at Lee County High School.“Now we’re back around to the elementary schools again,” he said. “But actually, it’s a good problem to have because it’s a symptom of growth. It’s a sign that Lee County has experienced continual growth.”

However, Bonardi acknowledged that news of overcrowding would not please everyone. The Lee County Commissioners would have to pay for the new school, which Bonardi said could cost about $13.5 million, plus another $300,000 to knock down the old, unstable structure still standing at the proposed site.

“I think their preference obviously would be not to take on any new capital projects right now,” he said of the commissioners. “I understand that position. But as a member of the board of education, I need to promote what I think the needs of Lee County Schools are.”

Lee County Manager John Crumpton said the county’s preference is indeed to avoid new construction projects because while the need might be there, the funds are not.

“The commissioners have committed to lowering the tax rate, and I can’t see us taking on any debt like that without raising taxes,” he said. He also noted that Central Carolina Community College is similarly requesting funds for a new building that would help with job training and economic development, which might take precedence if the commissioners decided to fund one project.

But school board Chairman Lynn Smith said the commissioners could vote either way, noting their recent funding for high-tech security measures at the schools, for which he said the district as a whole is very thankful.

And while Bonardi emphasized the logistical concerns that overcrowding creates — too few seats at lunch, crowded playgrounds and long bathroom lines, among others — Smith said the abundance of mobile units could also pose security risks that the recent measures might not be able to prevent.

“There’s just absolutely no way we could secure those units,” he said, noting that the number of children in mobile units alone could fill up the new school, which Bonardi said would likely hold 650-700 students.

The board will hear Bonardi’s proposal on Tuesday during the 6 p.m. monthly meeting in board chambers at Lee County High School, after which the floor would be opened for questions. Finally, Smith said, the board is expected to vote on a motion to send the results of the discussion to the county for consideration.

Crumpton, however, did not give rise to much hope, noting that the county already has $70 million in debt services for school projects that he said will take 15 years to pay off.

“Most of our borrowing right now is for education, and there’s only so much we can borrow,” he said.

Other matters up for discussion at Tuesday’s school board meeting include minor policy changes and a consent agenda contining 11 items that will be voted on without discussion unless a board member protests, including a $1.68 million expenditure to replace 2,800 three- and four-year-old laptops with tablet devices. Smith said the old computers will be put back into circulation, kept for parts or sold.

Likely not to be brought up at the meeting, Smith said, are plans to move forward on selecting a new superintendent. Superintendent Jeff Moss was recently offered the same job in Beaufort County, S.C., and has said he plans to leave Lee County by July. However, Smith said, Moss hasn’t resigned his Lee County job yet, and thus the board can’t move toward replacing him. Smith also said he didn’t anticipate any preliminary discussion on the possible replacement method — appointment or a local or national search — because to do so before Moss signs his contract in South Carolina would be premature.