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Camden delays decision on new high school

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Tom White

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By Reggie Ponder
Staff Writer

Sunday, January 27, 2019

CAMDEN — It will be at least a couple more months before Camden County officials are prepared to back a plan for a new high school.

Members of the boards of commissioners and education held a joint meeting last week at which the proposed new school was the chief topic. The Board of Education wants to apply for a $15 million state grant to build the new school estimated to cost $45 million and have asked the Board of Commissioners to support the project, which includes a $5 million local match.

Commissioner Randy Kraniak made a motion at Thursday’s meeting to support the school board’s application, but then withdrew his motion when other commissioners failed to support it, citing concerns about the matching grant.

Commissioners said they would like to discuss the grant application for the proposed new school at their retreat next month. The two boards agreed to hold another joint meeting on March 28 to discuss the new high school project.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Tom White explained that commissioners have to be sure they are doing the right thing — that this is the right time to move forward with building a new high school.

“This is a big cost to the citizens,” he noted.

Analysis by the county’s finance office indicates the payments on $30 million in debt for a new high school would require the county to raise the property tax rate by 19 cents per $100 valuation. The debt amount is based on the school board receiving $15 million in state grant funding toward the estimated $45 million cost of a new high school.

That tax hike would increase the annual property tax bill on a $200,000 home by $380.

One other option the county has looked at is waiting 10 years to build the new school, while banking funds in the schools capital reserve account to use toward the new campus. Doing that could bring the needed tax increase down to 13 cents, or $260 annually on a $200,000 home.

White said commissioners can discuss the matter at the retreat, including the question of whether to move forward with putting a bond referendum on the ballot in 2020.

“We’ve got to look at where the money is coming from,” he said.

Despite not reaching consensus on whether the high school project will go forward, the boards did find other areas of common ground at Thursday’s meeting. One was the need to expand and strengthen school course offerings in vocational fields, or what is now known as career and technical education.

Camden Schools Superintendent Joe Ferrell said educators everywhere have begun to understand the importance of offering good opportunities for students who, instead of going to college, would rather graduate from high school with a skill they can use to move directly into a good-paying job.

“The board recognizes and our staff recognizes that we need to get back to CTE,” Ferrell said, referring to career and technical education.

Amber Davis, principal of Camden County High School and Camden Early College High School, said one of her goals is to grow CTE programs. Many early college students are already earning career credentials such as welding certification while they’re in high school, she said.

“We want to grow those numbers,” Davis said.

Members of both boards had an opportunity to submit questions in writing ahead of Thursday’s meeting. One question from county officials was whether the new high school is a “need” or a “want.”

Ferrell replied that it’s both.

“We want what’s in the best interest of our students,” he said, and based on that want, there are facility needs the current high school lacks.

For example, he said, the high school needs space for activities such as marching band. The band currently practices in a parking lot, he said.

In addition, classrooms in the high school were not designed for the way classes are taught now, with today’s emphasis on digital technology, Ferrell said. The school also needs classrooms better suited to CTE courses and more lab space for science classes, he said.

Commissioner Clayton Riggs asked how Camden ranks statewide in academic achievement. He noted that in the past Camden has ranked among the top 10 districts in the state.

Ferrell wasn’t sure of the exact rank but said the district continues to be among the best in the state.

“We’re up there very high,” he said.

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