School board members instructed maintenance staff members Monday night to re-evaluate maintenance issues at Erwin Elementary School to make sure it is safe for students after several issues with the old building in recent days.
An awning fell outside the school over the weekend and a ceiling fan fell in a classroom creating concerns for school officials. There have also been water leaks in several parts of the building.
Board Chairman Bill Morris asked Superintendent Dr. Aaron Fleming to instruct maintenance staff members to examine all ceiling fans at the site as well as awnings and parts of other structures.
“Before we put people back in that building, it needs to be safe,” Mr. Morris said.
The issue concerned several board members.
“God forbid someone gets hurt, it is just not worth it,” board member Roger Farina said.
The current Erwin facility was built in the 1930s. A replacement for the school is scheduled to be the next construction project for the school system. The new building would consolidate Erwin and Gentry Primary schools into one school for students in kindergarten through fifth grade. The new school will be on the same site as the existing Erwin Elementary School.
County commissioners have not approved money for the project.
Mr. Farina expressed frustration with commissioners.
“It is not a surprise that we need to build new schools,” Mr. Farina said. “Commissioners need to have a plan. I don’t understand why they won’t fund new schools.”
Mr. Farina said he sees the problem continuing to get worse.
“We have Harnett Central and Western Harnett High Schools that are both 40 years old and they are going to need to be replaced at the same time,” Mr. Farina said. “We need a plan to do that.”
Mr. Farina also suggested that Highland Elementary School will be in need of expansion soon.
Assistant Harnett County Manager Brian Haney said the county is aware of school needs, but commissioners “have to consider the financial impact these decisions make on the county’s operations as a whole and on the citizens of Harnett County in terms of the potential impact on the county’s tax rate.”
He said the county is working with the board of education, but has to weigh the “value of new construction versus renovation and reuse, as well as the need to address current and projected growth while also taking into account the condition of current facilities.”
Mr. Haney said the board “is extremely interested in the possibility of a statewide school bond that would distribute the burden of constructing new schools more broadly ... .”
He also said the county continues to work with legislators to make assistance money to educate military-connected students distributed more evenly.
Due to a formula, Cumberland County gets considerably greater financial assistance than Harnett.
In other action, Dr. Fleming addressed the latest project that is underway, a new Benhaven Elementary School. He told the board that though some parts of the project will remain to be completed, he expects the new school to be in use on the first day of classes on Aug. 27. The school, located off N.C. 87, replaces the old Benhaven facility in the Olivia community.
“It is going to be close, but I think we will make it,” Mr. Morris said. “Our No. 1 thing is to get kids into the school by the first day of classes and I think we can do that.”
Deputy Superintendent Brooks Matthews said heavy rains in recent days have slowed the work, but he also expects the school to be ready for the first day of school.
“I feel better about it now,” Mr. Matthews said.
In an unrelated discussion, Dr. Fleming said there are no funds available this year from the county for raises for classified staff members. Classified employees are all those who do not hold a teacher certificate including assistants, cafeteria workers, janitorial staff and others. Those employees will get a 2 percent raise from the state, but no additional raise from the county.
Previously, the local school system has funded raises for classified staff members from the system’s fund balance.
“We can’t do that anymore,” Dr. Fleming said.
Board members discussed several issues pertaining to the beginning of school including traffic in the area of the two Highland schools. The middle school and elementary school are next to each other on Buffalo Lakes Road in the western part of the county causing heavy traffic in the time period before and after school. Mr. Farina offered a suggestion to reduce the number of cars.
“We need to put out the message to parents that they need to use buses,” Mr. Farina said. “Let’s put that message out there.”
None of the other board members responded to his suggestion.
The board tabled any action on changing facility rentals for groups in the community. The board agreed to temporarily leave rates at last year’s level for Solid Rock Foundations. That group uses parts of the old Benhaven Elementary, Overhills Elementary and South Harnett Elementary for different activities.