12/11/09 — Duplin Board of Education takes look at building plans

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Duplin Board of Education takes look at building plans

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on December 11, 2009 1:46 PM

KENANSVILLE -- The Duplin County Board of Education was under pressure Wednesday night to decide on a facilities construction plan that could take advantage of more than $6 million in economic stimulus tax credits.

Robert Ferris, chief executive officer and president of sfL+a Architects in Raleigh, spoke to the board about a potential construction plan that could be used to build a new energy-efficient high school. The 170,000-square-foot high school would cost about $140 a foot, not including the cost of land. Although the total project cost would be around $34.9 million, $6.9 million in available tax credits and current savings on construction costs could drop the final price down to about $28 million, Ferris said.

"If you build it, you could save proportionally about half (on construction)," he said.

Financing for the project over a 40-year period could be obtained at an interest rate as low as 4.3 percent, and even more energy tax credits could be obtained to make the potential building one of the most advanced and energy efficient in the nation, Ferris told the board.

"It'll actually be the second most advanced -- by the time it's done, it could be the most advanced school in the country," he said.

The company is building a similar school in Cumberland County. That school will have an Energy Star rating of 100, marking it as one of only eight buildings in the country to operate so efficiently. It would translate to long-term energy savings, Ferris said.

Including "soft costs," which include architect fees, the entire project would be about an estimated $3 million commitment from the county each year, he said.

However, the board members must set the plan in motion by Christmas in order to have a good chance of obtaining the tax credits, and construction costs will not remain this low forever, Ferris warned.

"I would have to call the accountants tomorrow and say, 'Go make it happen for Duplin County,'" he said.

But no firm commitment about the location of any potential project would be in place until after obtaining the financing and tax credits, Ferris said.

School board officials discussed the options following Ferris' presentation and talked about some of the county's school facilities needs. In particular, the members discussed possible solutions to overcrowding at B.F. Grady Elementary School, the need for a new James Kenan High School and concerns about Charity Middle School.

"If we're serious about school construction, I think we ought to take advantage of this opportunity," board member Hubert Bowden said.

Chairman Reginald Kenan agreed, based on the information on overcrowding presented at the last meeting by consultant Jeff Tsai.

"The numbers are obviously saying we've got to do some kind of construction," Kenan said.

However, the board members could not agree on an approach to the potential project.

Board members also discussed possible changes that would affect the North Duplin schools, including the possibility of redistricting or busing children from overcrowded B.F. Grady to North Duplin.

"I think they would welcome more students, we've just got to do it in a logical way," Vice Chairman Chuck Farrior said.

But the travel time it would require, and the cost of that proposal caused some board members to question the idea. Another possibility discussed was building a new middle school equidistant from the two schools to accommodate students from both B.F. Grady and North Duplin.

Bowden said that the board should not shy away from making changes that will affect North Duplin schools.

"I think it's very disturbing and frustrating to see how some districts are being passed over," he said.

Emily Manning also questioned the policy of not sending North Duplin students to a centralized high school, if a new James Kenan High School were to be built.

"Why would you not include high school students from North Duplin?" she said.

Two Duplin County commissioners, and possibly a third, would support consolidating North Duplin with James Kenan High School, Bowden said.

"Some of us are trying to exclude North Duplin. That's not right, not educationally sound," he said.

Kenan said he wants to be more progressive, but not build a high school if the system cannot fill it with students.

"We can't possibly do that without consolidation," board member Willie Gillespie commented.

But the board will "run into a brick wall" if the members attempt consolidation, Jennings Outlaw said.

Three proposals regarding new construction failed to gather enough votes to pass.

The three rejected proposals included motions to build a new James Kenan High School at the Duplin Commons or current James Kenan High School site, redistrict B.F. Grady to send students to North Duplin to continue through North Duplin Junior/Senior High School and building a primary wing to help with student overcrowding at B.F. Grady; build a new James Kenan High School, waiting to conduct any redistricting until after Tsai presents further data to the school board, and dedicating an alternate project to building facilities for B.F. Grady or Charity Middle School if funding is not approved for the high school; and building a new James Kenan High School and incorporating North Duplin students into it as well as James Kenan High School students, moving students from Rose Hill-Magnolia into the Wallace-Rose Hill district and building an addition or doing new construction at B.F. Grady to relieve congestion.

"It sounds like what we're discussing here is pieces of several different plans," Gillespie said.

The board has been discussing the issue for years without coming to any firm conclusions about it, Mrs. Manning pointed out.

"I don't see how we can ever go forward if we don't know what we've going to do. It's been going for five years now, or four years. You've got to have a good decision about what you're going to build," she said.

Working together with the Duplin County Board of Commissioners to make the project a possibility is something that must be addressed, board member Jennings Outlaw said.

"I'm not sure what the commissioners are going to commit to in either case," he said.

The board took no further action on the discussion.

Monday is the latest the company can reasonably work toward getting the federal stimulus money, and the odds of getting the money decrease with each passing day, Ferris told board members.