In March of last year, Johnston school leaders told County Commissioners they would need a $143 million bond issue in 2022 to build new schools.
Commissioner Fred Smith, long a champion of building schools and building them with bond dollars, said the schools’ request was woefully short of what Johnston needed. “It is totally inadequate for what this county needs,” he told school leaders.
A year later, the schools asked commissioners for a referendum on a $253.5 million bond issue to build a high school, two elementary schools and classroom additions on several Johnston campuses. (That’s essentially what the schools would have done with that $143 million. It’s frightening what inflation is doing to building costs.)
This time around, Commissioner Smith said school leaders were asking for too much. He suggested a $150 million bond issue and argued that the schools didn’t need the high school included in their building plans.
What a difference a year makes.
A year ago, Smith said the schools needed to think big. “That’s the problem we have in Johnston County — we have thought too small,” he said then. “And the school board and the school facilities people have not been honest enough about what you need.”
He added: “This county has the money it takes to get rid of mobile classrooms and to build the schools that we need to have a first-class education system for our students.”
The schools took Mr. Smith’s admonition to heart, returning this year with some $720 million in building needs over the next six years or so.
One would have thought that Commissioner Smith would have been happy to get what he asked for — a school-building plan that thinks big. Instead, he accused the schools of routinely overestimating enrollment, meaning their building needs are likely overstated too.
In Commissioner Smith’s defense, he isn’t wrong about the schools. They have tended to overestimate enrollment as Johnston parents have opted for charter, private and home schools amid the pandemic. (Perhaps if Johnston schools had returned to in-person learning sooner, parents would have returned to the public schools in larger numbers.)
But a year ago, Mr. Smith said, “When I ran to be a county commissioner, I said I want to make sure that we have a way to eliminate all of the mobile classrooms in Johnston County, and I meant that.”
A year later, all of the mobile classrooms that Commissioner Smith lamented — 186 at last count — are still there, and the bond amount he supported won’t get rid of them.
Mr. Smith is right to critique school leaders for shortcomings that tend to cost taxpayers money. But if he is serious about ridding Johnston schools of mobile classrooms, he needs to, well, think big.