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County seeks faster action on new school

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BY AMELIA HARPER
Staff Writer

Friday, May 17, 2019

The Nash-Rocky Mount Board of Education and Nash County commissioners met together Thursday at Northern Nash High School to discuss the construction of a new elementary school in the Red Oak area.

The proposed elementary school that will be built in a yet-to-be-determined area in the northern part of the county could house up to 950 students, but that decision will not be made until at least the end of summer after the research had been completed. Thomas Dudley and Matthew Palmer from N.C. State University were on hand at the meeting to discuss the timeline and process for gathering data as part of an Integrated Planning for School and Community report that would be issued to the school board in the fall, according to their current timeline.

The decision to hire this group, which has aided the school district in past redistricting efforts, was made by the school board in February. This research would help the school board make better informed decisions about potential school closures, new school construction and possible redistricting efforts, Palmer said. However, the process involves extensive interviews and analysis of land use and enrollment projection data that takes time to complete.

Robbie Davis, chairman of the Nash County Board of Commissioners, said he is concerned about the timeline since the school construction needs to begin fairly soon in order to be certain of the $10 million in grant money for the project authorized by the state.

“We are in a pretty big hurry and hope the process can happen more quickly,” Davis said.

In a later interview, Davis said the state had not issued a specific time table for when school construction had to begin but had hinted that the funds would not be available if construction did not begin soon. Of the six school districts that had been awarded these same grant funds from the state, five already had construction projects underway, Davis said.

Franklin Lamm, chairman of the school board, said he agrees that the process needs to be accelerated.

“We need to make an informed decision and be transparent,” Lamm said. “But transparency should not lead to paralysis.”

Despite the fact that no public discussions of school construction have taken place in seven months, Shelton Jefferies, superintendent of the school district, and several school board members mentioned the need for transparency in the process multiple times during the meeting.

The school board did hold three non-public meetings for select members of the community last year in addition to three public forums where the need for new school construction and the possibility of closing Red Oak Elementary, Swift Creek Elementary and Cedar Grove Elementary schools were discussed. The last public forum was held in October 2018. 

Since then, some unidentified members of the school and county boards have been meeting in informal small group settings under the title of the “New School Construction Group” to avoid triggering state public meeting laws. Plans for new school construction have been discussed in these settings.

One of the issues that came from these discussions was the possible need to expand the capacity of the new elementary school to 950 students rather than the roughly 750 students discussed at the public forums. The population group in the Red Oak area may require this adjustment and is one of the issue that both bodies hope to determine from the research.

More community meetings about the issue may be held in the future, though none have been discussed or slated yet.

“We are learning lessons from past mistake,” Jefferies said. “Both boards are committed to making this a transparent process.”

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