The Board of Commissioners has tabled a request by Moore County Schools [MCS] to use $800,000 in NC Education Lottery funds to purchase the site for a new Aberdeen Elementary School and to pay for due diligence and design fees. The unanimous vote came during the Board’s Tuesday, August 4 meeting.
“Using lottery funds for furthering the capital needs of our schools is right on,” Commissioners’ Chairman Nick Picerno said during the meeting. “That’s what they are actually supposed to be used for — to build schools.”
“What my issue is, and has been all along,” Picerno continued, “I am not voting to spend one penny on any school construction of any kind until the Board of Education and the Board of Commissioners have met, got on the same page, and understand the beginning, the middle, and the end of what we are trying to accomplish, what the timeframe is to accomplish that, what the anticipated cost is going to be, and what problems we are actually solving as we go through each of these processes.”
MCS Administration and the Board of Education undertook a lengthy process of identifying and prioritizing the County’s needs for new and expanded school facilities in 2013 and 2014. That process included a projection of student population growth by a research firm affiliated with NC State University, evaluation of existing MCS campuses by Moseley Architects, community meetings and a survey to gather public input, the convening of a task force of community leaders to provide recommendations to the School Board, and significant debate by the School Board itself.
The result was a priority list of ten projects with an estimated total cost of $110 million, including the expansion of Pinecrest and Union Pines High Schools, the construction of a new specialty high school, three new elementary schools, expansions at Pinehurst and West Pine Elementary Schools, renovations at North Moore High School, and a new middle school.
What the process did not produce — and the Commissioners want — is a detailed projection of the timing of those projects, and the cash that will be required at each step of the process, so that the County can decide how best to come up with those funds.
Commissioners want to avoid bond interest
It is typical, in North Carolina, for Boards of Education to package up a bundle of school projects and for the Board of Commissioners to ask the public to vote on the sale of general obligation bonds to pay for the entire plan. Moore County did just that in 2006, when voters approved borrowing $54 million to fund public school capital projects, including the construction of West Pine Elementary and Crain’s Creek Middle School.
The County is still paying off those bonds — and the associated interest — and the Commissioners hope to avoid those interest payments in the future by adopting a pay-as-you-go approach to funding school construction.
“We paid $8 million in debt service this year,” Picerno said. “A large portion that was in interest payments that bought us absolutely no seats, no textbooks, no Chromebooks, no teachers, no assistants.”
Whispering Pines weighs in
Members of the Whispering Pines Village Council attended the meeting in support of comments made by Mayor Bob Zschoche, who expressed concern that the Aberdeen land purchase might indicate that replacing the Aberdeen schools had taken a jump up in the School Board’s priority list, ahead of a new elementary school for attendance Area 1, which includes Sandhills Farm Life, Carthage, Cameron, and Vass-Lakeview Elementary Schools.
Supporting Picerno’s motion to table the request for lottery funds, Commissioner Otis Ritter said, “We have a conflict with the Mayor because no one is talking about what your plan is.”
Both Picerno and Commissioner Randy Saunders noted that they first learned of the potential purchase of land for an Aberdeen school by reading about it in the newspaper, rather than being informed in advance by the School Board.
“We have committed that we are ready to spend some money,” Saunders said, but we need to spend it in an order that we all understand.”
The County has amassed a substantial fund balance and deposited much of it in a special account dedicated to capital needs — principally, school construction.
“If we do this,” Saunders said of the $800,000 request, “then you might come up next meeting and say, ‘By the way, we need $4 million for Pinecrest,’ and the next meeting it might be $5 million for Union Pines.”
“With the amount of money — with $110 million on that list — we’ve got to work together to make that work.”
In his motion to table the matter, Picerno called for County Manager Wayne Vest to set up a meeting between the Commissioners and school officials in which a more detailed version of the facilities plan could be discussed.
School Board Member Ed Dennison, who was present for the Commissioners’ meeting, told The Times that the School Board is equally interested in having a more detailed plan for attacking its facilities needs.
Dennison said it is feasible to produce the level of detail that the Commissioners are seeking, adding that the School Board itself needs additional information in order to accomplish that. The School Board currently has consultants working on the initial stages of planning for the Pinecrest and Union Pines expansions.
MCS Operations Director John Birath expressed confidence that the tabling of the lottery funds request would not jeopardize the land purchase in Aberdeen, because the purchase contract provides MCS with ninety days to close the deal.
Commissioners back School Board recall
Also during their August 4 meeting, the Commissioners approved a resolution “supporting North Carolina Representative Jamie Boles’ efforts in pursuing recall election legislation for the Moore County Board of Education members.”
During their July 21 meeting, the Commissioners turned down a similar resolution that would have asked the NC General Assembly to add Moore County to a bill, approved by the NC House, that lays out a process for recalling members of the Stanly County School Board.
That vote by the Commissioners produced an immediate outcry on social media from those determined to recall School Board member Laura Lang, the only remaining member who voted to terminate Superintendent Dr. Bob Grimesey’s contract. Chairman Picerno pledged that same night to put the matter back before the Board of Commissioner for another vote — and to support the recall effort.
County Attorney Misty Leland drafted two recall resolutions for the Board’s August 4 meeting. The option that was not approved would have also included the possibility of recalling members of the Board of Commissioners.
Commissioner Saunders argued that “anyone willing to put their name on it “ — a recall resolution — should be willing to be recalled.”
But Chairman Picerno said that “a recall should be a very special instance, with a very special defined purpose. If you make it a general issue, the what you’ve done, is you have replaced elections with recalls. There is a recall mechanism for every elected official. That’s called re-election.”
The Board ultimately voted four-to-one, with Saunders opposed, to approve the resolution that includes only a School Board recall.
Both Picerno and Saunders said the dismissal of Grimesey was a particularly egregious action in which a majority of the School Board had not followed due process.
The resolution approved by the Commissioners may have little chance of actually effecting a recall election. Representative Jamie Boles and Senator Jerry Tillman have indicated they expect little support in the General Assembly for a local recall bill this late in the session.
In other business during their August 4 meeting, the Moore County Board of Commissioners:
• Heard a presentation on the work of the Nursing and Adult Home Care Community Advisory Committee.
• Accepted a $244,996 grant from the state Community Transportation Program to support Moore County Transportation Services.
• Approved a contract amendment with McFadden Homes that reduces the cost of the Midland Road sewer pump station project by $8,500.
• Approved a modification of the contract with FirstHealth of the Carolinas, which operates the County’s Wellness Works employee health clinic. The changes to the contract define each party’s responsibilities for information technology systems required to operate the center.
• Appointed Rich Smith Chairman of the Planning Board.
• Appointed Commissioner Catherine Graham the Board’s voting delegate to the NC Association of County Commissioner conference.
• Approved Ron Atkinson as Extraterritorial Jurisdiction member of the Town of Vass Planning Board
• Reappointed Matthew Rothbeind to the Sandhills Center Board of Directors.
• Reappointed Matthew Garner to the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council.
• Appointed Michael Jones to the Moore County Airport Authority.
• Appointed Robert Garner to the Board of Adjustment.