The typical Davie County resident views the controversy over a new high school as a battle between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”
For more than a decade, the decision to build a second high school campus, now estimated to cost $30 million, has pitted the white-collar east side, known as Advance, against the blue-collar west side community of Mocksville.
County officials claim overcrowding and the use of 26 portable trailers at the current location in Mocksville have harmed students. They say the existing high school, known for its stellar athletic and academic programs, simply is located on the wrong side of the county.
But county residents never have been keen about raising the taxes or allowing the debt a new campus would require. School bond referendums in 2003 and 2007 to provide money for a new school in the eastern part of the county were rejected by nearly 2-to-1 margins both times. Two subsequent ballot measures that would have raised taxes to fund a new school also have failed.
“Most people felt the rich kids were going to get the new school and the poor kids would get the old school,” said longtime resident and area businessman Ralph Greco, who supports the new high school. He added that a significant portion of the population also worried about dividing the county’s successful athletic programs.
County Manager Beth Dirks said the defeats sent a clear message to local officials. But the message they got may not be the one the locals were sending.
County officials believe residents want one centrally located high school.
“We came up with a new plan,” she said. “We would build a single new campus near Davie County Junior High in the center of the county. It was a compromise plan of the two failed bonds.”
Dirks said the plan was about more than developing a new high school. The project also would include a new facility for the early college program, and would repurpose the current high school campus for use as the district’s central office and much-needed community college space.
She also said the new high school would be built to the specifications of the STEM education initiative, a program sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Davie County was hand-picked to participate as a community collaboration role model for the state.
“The new high school would be the first school in the nation designed around our instruction, how we want to teach in those walls,” Dirks said. “We custom-designed a prototype high school around our STEM education.”
After the tax measures failed, county commissioners tried to bypass the voters by asking the state for $30 million in Certificates of Participation funds.
Republican Commissioner Mark Jones wrote a letter to the North Carolina Local Government Commission in Raleigh stating he would not appropriate the funds to pay off the loan. Jones said he felt officials were abusing their power when they pursued COPs funding.
“Citizens have a constitutional right to vote if they want to incur such a large debt,” he said.
Bill Foust led a group of citizens who traveled to Raleigh to ask state leaders to turn down the loan.
“I let them know that 65 to 70 percent of voters were constantly voting against this thing,” he said. “I told them Davie County leadership has continually infringed on and skirted around our constitutional rights and that it’s been a continual battle [of] a want over a need. I informed them there was no community support and the new school plan was not backed by the pledge and good faith of the voters and there was a possibility that we could default on the loan.”
The committee voted 5-3 to turn down the COPs loan — a decision some say is unprecedented.
“The people of Davie County have made it clear that they want one high school and they are satisfied with the one we have, yet the school board and the county commissioners continue to pander to 25 percent of the population,” Foust stressed.
Former Davie County High School Teacher and Yadkin Valley Tea Party Member Mark Hagar agreed.
“Community members are expressing outrage that the voters aren’t being listened to,” he said. “The county commissioners keep working through all the layers of legalities to get this done, but they are not listening to their constituents.”
Despite the setbacks, Dirks, the majority of the county commissioners, and the board of education have not given up on the project.
“What’s it going to take?” she said. “Why aren’t people buying into it? That’s the $30 million dollar question.”
Karen Welsh is a contributor to Carolina Journal.