01/05/10 — Architect addresses school construction questions

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Architect addresses school construction questions

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on January 5, 2010 1:46 PM

KENANSVILLE -- The Duplin County Board of Commissioners opened up the floor at the board meeting Monday, allowing concerned residents to question architect Robert Ferris about plans for a new high school facility.

Ferris, of SFL+a architects of Raleigh, appeared before the board to present the commissioners with the same information given to the Board of Education in December, outlining the costs predicted for building a new, state-of-the-art high school in Duplin County.

Board of Education Chairman Reginald Kenan attended the meeting and introduced Ferris, with a comment about the facilities plan.

"It was not my plan," he said.

Similar plans had been discussed since 2008, Kenan said.

After figuring in more than $6 million in federal tax credits, and taking into account low interest rates and a 40-year repayment term with the USDA, the proposed high school would cost an estimated $27.9 million, Ferris told commissioners.

The county's payment would work out to about $2 million a year, not including the cost of land, educational materials or the cost of operating the school. It also did not include the cost of providing water and sewer for the school. However, closing the other schools to combine the students in the new school would mean the operational costs would likely balance out, Ferris said.

And while his company is already pursuing the funding, time is still of the essence to take advantage of low construction costs and the best interest rate, he said.

"It has to be done now. We can't wait six months," Ferris said.

Chairman Cary Turner asked Ferris how long the funding had been available. The allocation was made in late October and became available only in early November, Ferris said.

"A lot of this is stimulus," he said.

"Was the Board of Education aware this money was available?" Turner asked.

"Yes -- well, I didn't actually meet with the Board of Education until December," Ferris said.

Turner then insisted that residents have a chance to speak to Ferris about the details of the proposal.

"I want you to allow the citizens to ask questions," Turner told Ferris.

Although the commissioners were discussing the issue in session, county attorney Wendy Sivori said the board could choose to include the public in the discussion.

Concerned resident Alice Scott asked if the project could be modified to use the funding for a different facilities plan. That might not be possible, Ferris responded.

"I don't want to say we have more time. I can't tell you the difference a week will make," he said.

When the money runs out, it runs out, Ferris said.

Resident Grant Davis pointed out that the architect's firm has a professional interest in building the school.

"You will admit you and your firm stand to profit from this," he said.

"Absolutely. It would be collusion to say anything else," Ferris said.

Davis also called into question the operating costs of the school, and Ferris reported that he could look at the price per square foot to operate similar schools the company has built for other counties, including Sampson and Cumberland, and provide that information to commissioners and the public.

It is the public who will have to live with the costs after the school is built, Davis said.

"These are going to be real burdens on taxpayers," he said.

And only $6.9 million of the alleged $30 million in savings is actual funding, while the rest is merely savings brought about by lower construction costs, Davis said.

But Ferris said he would stick to his comments about the potential savings if the school is built now.

"I'm going to hold real firm to what I said and how I said it," Ferris said.

In another year or a different economic climate, it would cost $30 million more to build the same school than it would to build now, he said.

The decision to include the public in the discussion came after several North Duplin school supporters spoke during the public comment period at the beginning of the meeting.

Mrs. Scott argued that the school facilities plan does not support the goals of the community, and the Learn and Earn program available in all high schools in the state addresses the academic concern of having a smaller high school.

"I request that you not vote for this plan at this time," she said.

Lifelong Duplin resident Sonya Smith asked the board members to step back and look at the issue more carefully, calling the proposal an "11th-hour plan."

"Caution, caution, caution. Look at and examine the evidence before you," she told commissioners, urging them to be mindful of the county's economic situation.

"You do your homework, because they (school board) have not," Mrs. Smith said.

Concerned grandparent Violet Goodson spoke strongly against moving forward with the facilities plan.

"This plan is not thought out, it's not fiscally responsible and does not have the support of half the Board of Education," she said.

Duplin parent Ralph Britt said he sympathized with elected officials, but that the facilities plan would not be supported by burdened taxpayers or affected parents.

"I know you have difficult decisions to make. This is not a difficult decision," Britt said.

Duplin business owner Stuart Precythe called into question the December Board of Education meeting, when the school board voted 3-2 in favor of consolidation.

"I think the board should really consider what happened at this meeting," he said.

Board of Education member Willie Gillespie also addressed the commissioners, responding to comments made at the last commission meeting.

"I'm here to defend my integrity," Gillespie said.

Gillespie said he did inform both the current school board chairman, Reginald Kenan, and the former school board chairwoman, Emily Manning, that he had undergone a medical procedure.

"For that to go unanswered would indicate that I am irresponsible or a coward who runs out on an important vote, and that was not the case," Gillespie said.

Speakers were limited to two minutes per person due to the number of people signed up to speak.

Commissioner David Fussell provided Ferris with a list of details about the possible new high school that he would like to have before moving forward with any plans for funding the proposed school, including site selection criteria, student dislocation, public support, alternative spending options, the affect of the new high school on the county school system as a whole, transportation costs and other information.

The commissioners tabled the issue and instead sought to schedule a meeting between both boards to discuss the facilities plan in greater detail.

"I would love to have the Board of Education take the Board of Commissioners through their decision process to make this decision. I think we need the benefit of that," Fussell said.

Faced with the potential for a 13-cent tax increase if the school board's lawsuit against the commissioners is upheld, adding on an additional tax for a new school would be an additional burden for taxpayers and give Duplin County the second-highest tax rate in the state, he said.

Although the board decided not to take immediate action on the issue, Ferris said his company is continuing to pursue the tax incentives for the project and is already in discussion with multiple agencies regarding building the new school.

Board of Education members Jennings Outlaw and Gillespie reported earlier this week that they were not informed that Ferris had been asked to address commissioners on behalf of the school board.