The term “canary in the coal mine” references the chirping little bird taken into coal mines due to their sensitive nature at detecting unseen dangers in the form of explosive gases. Metaphorically the 830 Pre-K to fifth grade students at White Oak Elementary School are the “canary in the coal mine” for Carteret County leaders and the danger is an explosion of unprepared growth.
Members of the county Board of Commissioners, the county Board of Education and other local community leaders toured the elementary school last week to see the overcrowded conditions facing the school’s staff due to rapid growth in that region of the county.
The school district runs along Hwy 58 from the Jones County line to the eastern limit of Emerald Isle and along Hwy 24 from the Onslow County line to the intersection of Hwy 24 and Morada Bay Drive, including Morada Bay Subdivision, and J Bell Lane.
School principal Terri Brett, along with parent Carissa Collins showed a map of planned subdivisions, 10 of which are along the N.C. 58 corridor and two on Highway 24. One development alone is planned for up to 1,800 homes, mostly three and four bedroom designs to be marketed to families with children.
White Oak Elementary currently houses approximately 830 students, ages 4 to 12-years-old, in a school that is so overcrowded that it is impacting the ability to feed the students in a reasonable fashion (lunches are spaced five minutes apart for each class), and is requiring spaces to be shared by competing services such as therapists and nurses.
These overcrowded conditions, while unacceptable, are just the beginning of the challenges this county and its municipal leaders will face in the years ahead as the surrounding counties experience growth from military investments.
In addition to being a popular tourist and retirement community, Carteret County is fast becoming a bedroom community for the thousands of military related personnel, uniformed, civil service and private contractors who are moving into the region for the anticipated military investment.
In Onslow County major construction to the tune of $1.5 billion will start soon to rebuild the base facilities at Marine Corps Bases Camp Lejeune and New River that were damaged by hurricane Florence. At Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in Havelock, a $1.6 billion military investment has begun as the base prepares for the arrival of up to 75 F-35 advanced fighters to eventually be stationed at the air base.
This military investment will bring hundreds if not thousands of people into the region for both temporary and permanent jobs. And because of the quality of our county’s services such as a highly ranked school system, relatively low taxes and of course ready access to the beach and inlet waterways, many of these new arrivals are choosing to make their homes here. This influx of families, no matter how large, will exacerbate an already growing problem.
Carteret County is growing quickly as noted in a recent report by the county’s tax office, showing an increase in property values due to current building growth in spite of the difficulties caused by hurricane Florence.
These are all indicators that the county is in the path of major population growth that demands immediate action to improve existing facilities such as White Oak Elementary, and thoughtful planning to prepare for the population explosion.
Failure to heed the warning signs of the county’s “canary,” in this case the overcrowding at White Oak Elementary, will result in uncontrolled, unplanned and explosive situations that will be more costly or impossible to fix in the decades ahead. The children at WOES will only be the first victims of a major disaster.