Future plans for a ninth-grade center to control overcrowding at Panther Creek High School are back on hold again.
The Wake County school board voted last week to direct staff not to spend any additional money on design work to place modular units for Panther Creek's ninth-grade center on the M-16 campus. The vote was made possible because of the absence of two Democratic board members, giving Republicans a temporary majority.
Whether the Democratic majority will let that stand at next week's meeting remains to be seen. At least some GOP board members want to return to the original plan of leasing an office building on Pleasant Grove Church Road in Morrisvillle.
It's been a long and tortured process about how to relieve overcrowding at Panther Creek.
The school board had voted 8-1 in February to lease the Pleasant Grove property for use in the 2012-13 school year. After parental complaints, the Democratic majority voted 5-4 in March to reverse that decision and to instead place modular units for the 2013-14 school year on the site of a planned middle school next to Alston Ridge Elementary School.
Then in May, the Cary Town Council rejected modifying town ordinances to allow the use of M16 for the modular campus. Town officials said approving the site would violate town rules prohibiting properties from only having temporary stand-alone structures.
Fast forward to last week's meeting, where school administrators had on the agenda requesting permission from the school board to spend an additional $441,900 for design work on placing the modular units for Panther Creek at M16. Wake has already spent $45,700 on design work for the modular units.
Staff asked for the item to be removed from the agenda but the board opted to leave it on. That's not typical. The board usually agrees to staff requests to pull items off the agenda.
Don Haydon, Wake's chief facilities and operations officer, gave two reasons for pulling the item off the agenda.
First, Haydon explained that a church had offered to provide land for a connecting easement between Alston Ridge Elementary and M16.
Haydon said the Cary town manager, town planner and town engineer told school administrators that if the district purchased the property instead of just getting an easement it would create one contiguous site. With Alston Ridge Elementary serving as the freestanding building, the town wouldn't have to modify its ordinances.
Haydon said it was premature to vote on the design agreements until they heard back about acquiring the property from the church.
Second, Haydon said a delay on the vote would also allow them to deal with concerns from residents about traffic patterns for the modular site.
During public comment last week, several residents from Waterford Estates objected to the district's plan to run school buses for the ninth-grade center through their community. Haydon said the state told them they need two entrances for the modular campus with the buses running through Waterford and cars through another road.
GOP board member Debra Goldman said that acquiring the property from the church is "trying to find a loophole and circumvent the will of the Town of Cary." She said they need to stop "burning bridges" with municipalities.
Goldman also cited the concern of the Waterford residents, saying "the neighborhood would be destroyed" by running the buses through the community. She cited how the prior board majority had killed the Forest Ridge High/H6 site after hearing traffic complaints from residents.
"We need to fight to save this neighborhood," Goldman said.
Goldman said she wished they had stuck with the Pleasant Grove site.
Democratic school board vice chairman Keith Sutton asked if it would be prudent to table the action item with all the concerns that exist. Goldman answered that it would be prudent to reject approving the design agreements for the modulars and revisit the decision on the site.
Democratic board member Jim Martin said that getting the land from the church is not a loophole. He said it's a way for Cary to avoid rewriting its ordinances.
GOP board member Chris Malone asked Haydon if the Pleasant Grove site was still available. Haydon answered yes.
"The best thing to do for all of us to make a decision moving forward would be to scrap this whole business and go back to the original site," Malone said.
Democratic board member Susan Evans said staff is listening to the concerns of the Waterford residents, pointing to a meeting that administrators held with residents the day before.
Evans also took a shot at Goldman, who had complained about the majority "voting as a bloc" to reverse its earlier decision supporting the Pleasant Grove plan.
Evans said she wanted "to go public" about how she had called Goldman the morning after the vote approving the Pleasant Grove lease. Evans said Goldman had voiced concerns about Pleasant Grove. Evans said she also asked Goldman about revisiting the vote.
"She didn't tell me how she would vote, but she was overwhelmingly supportive of revisiting that decision," Goldman said. "So I think the public needs to know that. While she keeps going on and on about how she always wanted the other site and it was just some other people changing their minds, I hate to be nit-picky about these things but I'm just tired of hearing the whining."
Sutton asked board members to please be respectful and not to single out other members.
GOP board member Deborah Prickett questioned when M16 would ever be built, calling it "pie in the sky" with the modular potentially being there for a long time. She also said they're usurping Cary by trying to acquire the land from the church.
Prickett said they need to go back and secure the Pleasant Grove site.
"We're left with a solution that may not be perfect, but at least it's a building," Prickett said. "It's a safe building and it's in a location that we can work with."
Goldman responded to Evans' comment by saying she had agreed to revisit the issue and have more discussion in hopes of finding a third site.
Goldman also said that it was violating the spirit of the town's land-use ordinance by purchasing the land to make it a contiguous property. She also said that placing the modulars there for six years is not temporary.
Sutton said he was concerned about language being used about staff finding a loophole or usurping Cary. He said it's the board and not staff's decision to go forward.
"It's a very serious accusation to say that staff has usurped the Town Council," Sutton said.
Superintendent Tony Tata said staff has been working with the Cary town manager and town council to find a practical solution. He said there's no intent by staff to usurp any authority or circumvent any decision.
GOP board member John Tedesco contrasted how the process in Cary has not gone as smoothly as it did in Garner for acquiring a ninth-grade center site.
The vote to follow staff's recommendation to table the design agreements deadlocked at 4-4. Democratic board member Christine Kushner, who likely would have provided the fifth vote to table the motion, was not at the meeting because she was on vacation.
After that vote, Prickett asked if there was a way to vote that night on going back to the Pleasant Grove site. School board attorney Ann Majestic said that it would take a two-thirds vote to rescind the prior decision because not all nine members were present and there wasn't advance notice about a Pleasant Grove vote.
Tedesco made a motion to reject the design agreements. That vote failed 4-4.
Malone asked for a quick recess to answer the call of nature. That motion passed 5-3 when Democratic board chairman Kevin Hill voted yes with the Republicans.
The five-minute recess turned into a 17-minute recess. By the time the board returned, Hill had left because his mother is ill.
Tedesco made a new motion to not allow staff to spend any additional design money on modulars for the ninth-grade center at M16.
Evans got Majestic to agree that approving the motion wouldn't prevent them from voting in the future to authorize money for the modulars to be placed at M16. Evans also took a shot at the "new majority" for wanting to vote on Tedesco's motion.
"I think this is inappropriate," Evans said. "I feel like there are certain board members here who are trying to take advantage of the situation that our chair had to leave the meeting because he has an illness in his family, and because we have another board member who had to be out of town traveling. I think there's been a lot of discussion about inappropriateness and that shouldn't be taking place."
The motion passed with all four Republicans voting yes and the three Democrats present voting no.