12/06/13 — Board of Education to move ahead with plans to replace two schools

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Board of Education to move ahead with plans to replace two schools

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on December 6, 2013 1:46 PM

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Grantham School fifth-graders Nate Best, Leah Turner, Haley Toler and Morgan Kennedy work on their computers during Thursday's class.

Wayne County school board members maintain they still want to move forward on building two new schools, even if it means cutting back on some of the extra amenities pitched to them by architects.

The Wayne County Board of Education's goal to build new Grantham and Spring Creek middle schools -- estimated to cost about $35.3 million together -- seemed on track to move forward since lottery and sales tax money was available to fund the projects.

In late October, the board chose an architectural firm, SfL+a, with the option of a "lease purchase." The architects would initially take ownership of the two properties and lease them to the district.

At two meetings held since, however, the architects' presentation shed a different light on the projects.

Robert Ferris, CEO and president of SfL+a, shared several examples of schools previously designed by his firm, along with a variety of amenities that were not in the original district plans. The proposal included auditoriums and everything from ballfields and lighting to band instruments and uniforms and anything needed to outfit a school kitchen.

The pitch for the "turnkey" effort meant a hike in the price tag. Instead of the original budget the district had in mind -- around $17 million for one school -- Ferris' firm had the final number upwards of $25 million, leaving the school board to contemplate how to accomplish its original goal of funding both projects.

The facilities committee met last week to discuss how to proceed.

"The bottom line is, we're at a point where we have got to reduce the cost if we're going to do both of them," board Vice Chairman Chris West said. "And we need to do both of them."

West said he would rather not encumber the school system with debt.

He suggested an estimated $6 million could be shaved from the architect's proposal, the estimated amount for furniture and other equipment.

"You look through this stuff. We don't need to finance library books for 20 years. We don't need to finance computers for 20 years," West said. "We need to get back to comparing bricks and mortar (and) we'll be pretty close to where we were originally."

West said the presentation gave the board "a false sense" of what it costs to build a school.

"Do we need to finance the cost of a spoon for 20 years?" he asked. "It just doesn't make any sense to me. If we look at taking this out -- furniture, band uniforms, anything of this stuff doesn't have to be on the 20-year financing. It doesn't make good financial sense."

Others on the committee, which includes board members Eddie Radford and Arnold Flowers, agreed they are not in favor of obligating the district to include "temporary-use stuff" on the financing.

"When we talked about building these schools, we never talked about buying these things," Flowers said. "We talked about construction."

And even though some of the items will ultimately be needed, Flowers said many of the things on the architect's list are not as essential as others, such as classrooms.

The more important thing, the committee agreed, is responding to the capacity needs in the two areas of the county. With that in mind, based on growth patterns, the Spring Creek school would need to be slightly bigger.

"You don't want to build a school just to fit the students," cautioned Superintendent Dr. Steven Taylor, who noted that such a move could result in again relying on modular units.

"The thing you have got to be careful of is pulling these trailers in right behind it as soon as it's built," Radford said.

Another item up for debate was whether or not to include an auditorium on the plan, which could account for about $3 million at each school, or a total of $6 million.

"I would like to see the auditorium in the schools," Radford said.

Flowers agreed that auditoriums could be an enhancement in the Grantham and Spring Creek areas and would be supported in those communities.

"I'm not anti-auditorium," West said. "I'm all for the auditorium. But we have got a pretty difficult task to get these numbers back to where we could afford two schools."

The district only has a few school auditoriums, with some relying on a multi-purpose room or cafetorium. The problem with some of that, though, is it usually requires having to move things around, Flowers said.

"It's hard to build two new schools and put an auditorium in one and not the other," West said.

But a worse scenario, he admitted, would be having to eliminate one of the projects altogether and West said he is trying to avoid having to tell Spring Creek, "Sorry, you're not going to get a school this year."

The committee said it had instructed the architect to re-calculate the costs and payments more in the price range originally sought by the district.