CAMDEN — Two citizens urged Camden officials this week to channel funding toward a new school building instead of a planned government complex.
Deborah Penwell, a mother of two young children who said she will have kids in the Camden County Schools for the next 16 years, asked the Camden Board of Commissioners Monday night to “please put a halt on the new complex” until a plan is in place to fund construction of a new school building.
Camden officials have been discussing building both a new government complex and high school for a number of years. The new school project has been slowed, however, by questions about funding and the facility’s size. A study now underway by M.B. Kahn Construction is intended to answer those questions.
School officials regularly point to overcrowding at the current high school, and Penwell echoed those concerns in her comments to commissioners.
New homes are being built even as Camden schools are already crowded and some are using modular units for classrooms, Penwell said. She hopes her children don’t have to attend class in a modular unit that is more than 20 years old, she said.
Penwell told commissioners she was disappointed to see the county moving forward with plans for the government complex, even after members of the public stated clearly at a meeting on facility priorities that the county’s focus should be on building a new school.
Samantha Nadj also addressed commissioners about school overcrowding and construction priorities during a public hearing on a proposed rezoning on U.S. Highway 158. The board was considering a proposal to rezone part of the Camden Business Park property from highway commercial to village residential.
Nadj said Camden schools would have no room for more students if homes are built at the business park property.
She also said the county should take the $10 million it’s planning to spend on the government complex and use it for a new school building. She said that if the county needs legislation to allow land transfer tax revenues to be used for a school building the area’s legislators would support that.
“We have asked them,” Nadj said.
Camden Manager Ken Bowman said Tuesday that the administrative-community complex and new high school are not competing projects, adding that both are moving forward.
“The projects are proceeding on parallel tracks,” Bowman said.
The administrative complex is moving faster right now, he said, because the county has renderings of a basic design scheme for the building and officials are reviewing proposals by architects interested in designing it. Bowman added he would like to hire an architect soon and break ground on the complex in June or July.
The county is looking for grant funding to help cover some of the cost of the library and community center buildings proposed as part of the complex, he said. Bowman said grants won’t be available for the administrative building, the third part of the three-building complex.
The school is a “totally separate project” that is in an earlier stage because it doesn’t have an estimated square footage or schematic design, Bowman said.
“That has no bearing on the school,” Bowman said of plans to move ahead with the complex. “It’s not either or.”
Commissioner Randy Krainiak has been a vocal supporter of the county building a community center that would include a library and new senior center. Both, along with new government offices, would make up the complex that county officials are looking to build. He said Tuesday he believes the community center should remain a high priority.
In addition to students Camden has senior citizens and people ages 18-55 who need to be taken care of, Krainiak said. The library and community center would be important facilities for citizens of all ages, he said.
“All citizens in Camden County need to be taken care of, not just the students,” he said.
Krainiak said he isn’t taking anyone’s word about crowding at the high school. He said he plans to visit the school and take a look for himself.
“I’m kind of like doubting Thomas in the Bible,” Krainiak said. “I’ll go by there and check and make sure.”
Camden County Schools Superintendent Joe Ferrell said he welcomes Krainiak and other county commissioners to visit the schools and see classroom overcrowding firsthand.
“I think this is a great idea because we have not had a joint meeting in one of our schools during the instructional day for a number of years and I think it is overdue,” he said.
Ferrell said he has reached out to Bowman to set up a visit.
“I would especially like for them to visit Camden Early College High School,” Ferrell said.
The school is located in modular units behind Camden High School.
Ferrell also cited a facility study conducted by Rick Ott of M.B. Kahn Construction, which determined “all of our schools are currently at or over capacity.”
But Camden’s need for a new school isn’t just about overcrowding, he said.
“It is also about programming, safety, long-term growth planning, student opportunity, and simple access to restrooms,” Ferrell said.
Camden added a Fire Academy this year and is looking at adding other programs in career and technical education, including drone technology, he said.
“A new school would allow us to increase such offerings to our students so that they gain job skills that make them employable upon high school graduation should they choose not to attend college right away,” Ferrell said. “The other major issue in my mind is safety, particularly at Camden Early College High School.”
Krainiak said he believes the claim that new homes are leading the schools to become overcrowded is an overstatement.
“Camden Plantation hasn’t turned a shovel yet,” Kraniak said, referring to a long-delayed mixed-use project planned for U.S. Highway 17 North. He said when Camden Plantation’s developer starts building homes, the need for a new school will be more urgent.
Students in Camden County are getting a first-class education and will continue to, he said.
Asked about using land transfer tax revenues for school construction, Krainiak said “I’ll leave that for the tax experts and the government experts.”