11/15/13 — Board: Two schools might be too much

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Board: Two schools might be too much

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on November 15, 2013 1:46 PM

The price of building a new school will be higher than first anticipated, between amenities like an auditorium and interest rates, prompting the Wayne County Board of Education to consider building only one new school and asking commissioners for additional funding.

At a special called meeting Thursday afternoon with the architect hired to build Grantham and Spring Creek middle schools, the school board continued to weigh the merits of simultaneously doing both projects.

Building designs for both schools are basically the same and similar in price, officials said. But instead of the original $17 million price range per school, it is now closer to $28 million, depending on options chosen.

An auditorium, for example, which was not in the board's original proposal, is an additional $3 million for each school. And interest rates, originally factored at 4 percent, are closer to 5 1/4 percent.

The board had been working under a $35.3 million budget for the two projects, or approximately $17 million each. In August, the school board decided to hire its own architect, settling on SfL+a, a Raleigh-based firm. Part of the appeal was the "lease purchase" option, where the architect would take ownership of the schools for a minimum of five years while the district leases them. Future lottery and sales tax revenue would be used to pay for the lease.

At a meeting with the architect on Oct. 31, though, a different scenario began to emerge.

Robert Ferris, CEO and president of SfL+a, rolled out three examples of schools his firm had constructed. He said at the time he hoped to secure a vote from the school board so that construction could start as early as April, which would have the new schools ready for occupancy by the fall of 2015.

The vote did not happen, as the board asked its finance officer to investigate possible finance options.

Nan Barwick, assistant superintendent for fiscal services, told the board Thursday that lottery funds and sales tax funds could comfortably pay for one school, but additional funding might have to come from the commission.

"The price tag is much higher than the school district was looking at," said Ken Derksen, director of communication services for the district. "The whole process is different. This is just a different type of school but of course there's a lot of cost savings (with energy and solar options).

"If we were to go to the board of commissioners to fund it, they would need annually to pay for the second school. We would ask the county commissioners to pay for the second school, about $2 million a year."

Even though the same designs would be used for both schools, Derksen said when it comes down to dollars and cents, and being able to do both projects at the same time, that might not be possible.

While Ferris laid out building and floor plans that he called "conservative," several concerns were mentioned by board members.

Board member Chris West's concern was about the layout of four sports fields on one corner of the property, particularly with the baseball and softball fields' proximity and the potential danger of foul balls in that area.

Other issues mentioned were the proposed traffic pattern and use of space in some of the schools. The architects response to all concerns was that the board has ultimate say in the projects and preferences.

Board chairman John Grantham also gave board members a homework assignment -- to review all the "up-front costs" to determine which items the district might purchase themselves.

The architects "turnkey" plan had featured everything from band music and instruments to a paging system and security system. At last month's presentation, Ferris had shared that the all-inclusive costs included "everything you need to move into the building but the teachers and children."

The architects are expected to be part of the discussion when it is continued at the Dec. 2 board meeting.

No date has been set for a joint meeting with the commissioners, but Derksen said it will likely be after the holiday break. The purpose of that meeting, he added, would be to share the latest information and communicate a possible request for additional funding.

The only votes taken Thursday were approving soil borings and a topographical survey as well as securing a bond counselor.

"It's not a school bond," Derksen explained. "It's not unusual to engage a bond counselor, who will represent the school system in reviewing those documents to make sure those bonds are in (our) best interest."