Johnston County School Board backs $250 million bond

SMITHFIELD, N.C. (WTVD) -- The Johnston County School Board voiced its backing for a $250 million bond, aimed at addressing overcrowding and the use of mobile units at schools during its board meeting Tuesday night.

It comes a few weeks after a presentation provided to board members highlighting shrinking capacity and potential future issues based on population increases. Recently released census estimates showed Johnston County grew by 4.9% between April 2020 and July 2021, the third-highest rate in the state.

The use of mobile units has been a sore point for students, parents, and administrators.

"You're separated from the school. You have to go outside where it's raining or freezing cold and get in the trailer, and then you have to go back in the elements to get back in the school. Between they're crowded and the temperature part of it and being disjoined from the actual school hallways and seeing your friends, it's a very displaced environment," said Emily Kuykendall, a mother of three who said all of her children have used the units.

According to the school district, 33 of 44 schools utilize mobile units; in total, 186 mobile trailers consist of 201 classrooms.

"We're spending roughly a little over $1 million a year from a leasing standpoint. And so let's carry that out 10, 12 years. Just on top of that, we want to give the students and staff a safe and secure learning environment. And kids seem to learn better inside a school versus a mobile unit," explained Johnston County School Board Chair Todd Sutton.

District leaders have divided their facility needs into three separate bond proposals - one in 2022, one in 2024, and one in 2026.

The proposal for 2022 includes the building of a new high school and two elementary schools, as well as additions to Cleveland High School, Cooper Academy, Cleveland Middle School, and Benson Elementary School, and would be for $250 million. Sutton expressed optimism that, if passed, construction could begin quickly.

"Hopefully by the 1st of next year. Our chief of facilities (Brooks Moore) and his staff have done a great job on analyzing and really pinpointing where we need to focus first," said Sutton.

The proposal for 2024 includes a new middle school and new elementary school, additions to Corinth-Holders Elementary School, Princeton Elementary School, and Four Oaks Middle School, as well as some infrastructure improvements, and would be for $250 million.

The proposal for 2026 would be for a new elementary school and most of the infrastructure improvements and would be for $220 million.

Once the School Board backs the bond, it would next go to County Commissioners for their approval; should it receive approval from them, voters would then decide whether or not to move forward.

"We need the funds to expand these schools. These schools have been overcrowded for quite some time, and it just keeps getting worse," Kuykendall added, noting she was concerned about the ratio of teachers to students, especially following learning challenges experienced during the pandemic.

Sutton said they are working to try and address this disparity.

"We had an employee interview session this week at West Johnston and had additional teachers come in and just check out Johnston County. So we're really focused on making sure we do have enough teachers and staff in our school system because at the end of the day it's all about learning. So if we don't have a certain amount of teachers in the classrooms, we can't expect our students to grow," Sutton said.

"We keep building in this area, adding more neighborhoods, more new construction, and the schools aren't catching up," Kuykendall said.

During remarks in the public session of Tuesday's Board meeting, Moore said they are seeing an average increase of 714 students per year, a number they anticipate to rise to 729 students per year.

To keep up with existing growth, Moore said they would need to add 89 mobile classrooms by the 2026 school year, with the bulk of those at elementary schools. It costs about $30,000 to set up each mobile unit, on top of annual leasing costs.

Because of the fire code, Moore explained that mobile units must be spaced at least 30 feet apart, creating another logistical challenge for how many units each school can accommodate.

NOTE: Video is from a previous update
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