SMITHFIELD -- Johnston County Commissioners and school board members met Thursday evening to talk about the county’s crowded campuses.
Commissioners seemed receptive to the schools’ request for $114 million to build new schools and expand existing ones. But they also asked schools officials to divide their building plan into phases or to reduce their request to their most-pressing building needs.
Over the past month, school leaders have been talking informally with county leaders about easing the schools’ overcrowding. Existing schools don’t have enough classrooms to accommodate the county’s growing student population.
That’s especially true in western Johnston, a high-growth area that stretches from Archer Lodge to the McGee’s Crossroads community.
Allen Mims, chairman of the county Board of Commissioners, said he would like for the schools to focus on maintaining and expanding existing schools before building new ones. “We don’t want all of our buildings to be run down, so that should be our first priority,” he said. “The classrooms should be our second priority.”
School officials have said the county needs to build five new schools – two elementary schools in Clayton and three middle schools in various parts of the county. The county also needs to add classrooms at Benson and River Dell elementary schools and at Four Oaks Middle School, school leaders said.
The new and expanded schools would ease the county’s reliance on mobile classrooms, which now number 148. The numbers are particularly high at Archer Lodge Middle School, which has 17 mobile classrooms, and Cleveland Middle, which has 13.
Mobile classrooms present a host of costly issues, said Patrick Jacobs, the school systems’ chief operating officer. They cost tens of thousands of dollars to move and set up in ways that comply with handicapped-access laws. They also need their own air-conditioning units, which can be unreliable.
“If they fail while the students are in session, we’re in a huge bind,” he said. “We’ll have to find somewhere else to put them.”
But without more brick-and-mortar classrooms, the number of mobile units will only grow. An N.C. State University research group called Operation Research and Education Lab, or OREd for short, predicts that Johnston County will gain 7,800 students between now and 2020. Most of them – about 5,300 – will be elementary school students.
The time to begin building classrooms for those students is quickly approaching, said Superintendent Ed Croom.
“We can’t afford to wait much longer,” he said.
County Manager Rick Hester said the county would most likely ask voters to approve a bond referendum to give the schools the money needed to build new classroom. But Hester doubted the county could afford the $114 million the schools say they need.
“That’s probably more than we can handle,” he said.
The two sides will likely hash out the details of a building plan over the next few months, Hester said.