The Catawba County Board of Commissioners heard presentations Wednesday on topics such as school enrollment trends and $13.3 million the county is set to receive through an opioid settlement.
Wednesday’s meeting was the first retreat for Commissioners Robert Abernethy and Cole Setzer, who were elected to the board last month and took office Monday. They were joined by fellow Commissioners Randy Isenhower, Barbara Beatty and Austin Allran.
The commissioners, who are legally tasked with providing funding for school capital expenses and construction, heard a presentation from Taylor Dellinger, a Western Piedmont Council of Governments senior data analyst, on enrollment projections for the county’s three school systems.
Dellinger’s data showed projections of enrollment through the 2028 school year.
The estimates included a less-than-1% increase for Catawba County Schools and a decrease of 1.3% in Hickory Public Schools enrollment. The projection for Newton-Conover was flat.
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Catawba County Manager Mary Furtado said the biggest areas of potential concern when it comes to lack of space are for the schools that feed into St. Stephens High School as well as Hickory Public Schools elementary schools, particularly those close to downtown Hickory.
She also said that sometimes worries about class space only concern certain grade levels at certain points in time.
“I know through discussions with the superintendent that in that St. Stephens district, they are nervous about fifth grade two years from now,” Furtado said. “Three years from now, they’re OK. But two years from now, they’re like, ‘What are we going to do to accommodate the fifth-grade class in that year?’”
Another presentation focused on the money Catawba County will receive from companies responsible for the opioid epidemic.
The county is set to receive $13.3 million over the next 18 years, money which will go to responding to the opioid crisis and its effects. Assistant County Manager Paul Murray said he expects the county will receive even more money as other companies settle.
He said the county has received $1.6 million of that money so far but has not spent any. The county has identified some principles to guide decision-making around the funds, including focusing on gaps in services, using the money to bring in additional funds through grants and ensuring that any programs or initiatives that receive funding remain sustainable once settlement funding is exhausted.
Furtado said one area of need in the county is for residential treatment, which she called “a very scary gap because it’s a very expensive gap.” She said the county has not identified a good solution for that problem.
She suggested that, rather than creating an overarching plan for how all the money will be spent, the county should take a more flexible approach to be able to take advantage of opportunities as they arise.
In responding to substance abuse problems, the county has typically sought solutions that work for a range of addictions rather than focusing on a single substance abuse problem, Furtado said.
Abernethy said that at this point he thinks settlement funds should be more targeted to address opioid abuse specifically, though he is open to hear other perspectives on the matter.
“I understand there’s going to be cases where certain entities also help with alcohol treatment or other abuses, but I think the fight we’re in now and the fact that this money is coming to us, initially I lean towards trying to apply it in a way that it fights the opioid problem,” Abernethy said.
The commissioners typically record no votes and take no action at the retreat.