03/07/07 — Duplin schools price revised facilities plan

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Duplin schools price revised facilities plan

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on March 7, 2007 1:52 PM

KENANSVILLE -- Two years after it was first discussed, the Duplin County Board of Education's facilities plan was back on the table Tuesday night as board members heard a revised presentation from developers.

The plan, originally approved in December 2005, includes building one new high school, one new elementary school and expanding Charity Middle School. It also includes a revamping of the school districts.

At that time, the estimate for the project was about $43.2 million. It was later revised to $51.2 million, but under the direction of the county commissioners to get costs under $50 million, square footage was cut and the price tag reduced to $49.5 million.

On Tuesday, however, the school board was told that the price had jumped to $60.9 million.

"Since (2005) we've had some pretty substantial cost increases," said Robbie Ferris, president of architectural firm Shuller, Ferris, Lindstrom and Associates.

And, he continued, with the latest estimate only taking into account inflation for the next year-and-a-half, unless action is taken to begin construction soon, costs are likely to go even higher.

"You're going to have to build schools sooner or later, and regardless of whether you do it sooner or later, you're fighting inflation," Ferris said.

The other option, he continued, is to allow his company to build the schools and then lease the buildings back to the county school system -- a choice only available since August when the General Assembly approved capital leases. So far, Ferris said, the only system taking advantage of the program is Cumberland County, but others have expressed interest.

Sketching out only the bare details, he explained that such an option could be beneficial and ultimately more cost-effective in several ways -- materials can be bought in bulk by the developer, the developer can take advantage of tax credits such as those given for energy-efficient features, maintenance costs can be built into the lease and the buildings can be constructed quicker.

Best of all, Ferris said, the school system doesn't have to pay any cash up front.

"You don't start paying for the building until you move in," he said.

He also estimated that over the course of the 40-year lease, the school system would save about $30.7 million on that $60.9 million price. It also would allow the school system to buy the buildings for a "basement bargain price" at the end of the lease.

It's an option, board members said, that they definitely are interested in, but one they need more time to examine.

They don't, however, want another two years to go by before looking at this issue again.

"We need to go ahead and make it active and make some decisions about what to do," board member Willie Gillespie said. "It's been dormant the last two years. We need to get this facilities plan back on the table."

The board did decide that it would try to plan a special work session sometime in April to further examine the issue. They also plan on broaching the subject with the county commissioners at their joint meeting at 5:30 p.m. Monday in the county Social Services conference room.

The board also adopted a new minority recruitment and retention policy Tuesday, which sets out several goals for bringing more minority teachers into Duplin County.

The policy says that "minority teachers will mirror Duplin County Schools' student population," "schools with the greatest need for minority candidates will receive priority placement" and "principals will be required to give hiring priority to candidates who mirror the student population."

Associate superintendent of personnel and support services Dr. Candace Turk, reminded the board, though, that the "current pool for minority candidates is very, very small in North Carolina."

In 2006, she said, only 850 minority teachers graduated from North Carolina schools.

"That is not a lot of minority candidates to go around so we will have to look hard," she said.