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Mecklenburg Trustees, Supervisors talk facilities

SoVaNow.com / December 15, 2010
At a historic joint meeting of the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors and School Board on Monday, officials began a process they plan to continue as they explore ways to finance a consolidated high school.

The boards are tentatively scheduled to meet in February to address funding options.

“We as a board need to develop our thought processes,” supervisors’ chairman Glenn Barbour said at the end of a presentation by school superintendent Dr. James Thornton. “I wanted them to give us a plan. We now have a plan.”

Thornton shared a compact plan for new construction, beginning with a centrally located high school to be completed in 2014-15 at an approximate cost of $49 million in today’s dollars. The school would replace Bluestone and Park View High Schools.

A tax increase of 11 cents per $100 assessed valuation could result.

Thornton said that in a later phase, the division would build a middle school with a 1,200 student capacity adjacent to the high school for a cost of $26 million in today’s dollars.

Both proposals have been approved by the School Board.

A program of remodeling or building new elementary schools also is part of the long-range construction agenda but has not been put to a school board vote.

In answer to a question from supervisor Jim Jennings, Thornton said the total new construction package would cost about $104 million “depending on what you do with the elementary schools.

“We of course are not asking to build all new schools at one time. We are hoping the first phase would be to consolidate the high schools and then move the middle schools into the high schools until we can get to Phase 2, which we know would be many years after Phase 1,” Thornton said.

County Administrator Wayne Carter computed that spending $59-$68 million for middle and elementary school construction could later bump the tax rate up an additional 13-15 cents per $100 assessed valuation.

Supervisor Dan Tanner asked whether a way other than raising taxes could be found to finance new schools. He suggested a bond referendum and commented that both boards need to work on a funding plan.

Thornton said that if the boards meet in February to discuss funding, the school division would have time to prepare for a bond referendum in November.

More on the agenda

He told the supervisors that new construction is just one aspect of a five-year capital plan that additionally calls for $2.7 million in infrastructure updates throughout the division. The cost excludes roof repairs that will be done on an as-needed basis.

The five-year plan that Bluestone and Park View Middle School students will move to their respective high school sites when the consolidated high school is completed in 2014-15.

Thornton said the five-year plan is based on plans previously drawn up by the individual schools.

He included in a packet for supervisors copies of all the plans as well as a narrative describing the benefits of the facilities plan and new construction.

The School Board will consider building three new elementary schools or renovating existing schools to achieve a student population of about 600 at each, he said.

Thornton said he has been told that new schools could be built on the La Crosse and Chase City sites, but that building at the site of the Clarksville Elementary School would be difficult.

He said a decision on elementary school projects had been postponed because he had questions about the accuracy of projected costs. He said that bringing the elementary schools into the 21st century would cost a total of $33-$42 million, regardless of whether they are renovated or replaced.

Other counties act

Thornton told the board many counties have addressed the combined problem of shrinking enrollment an old school buildings by consolidating into fewer schools, either new or renovated that meet the current standard of design, programming and energy efficiency.

In aging schools, “operating costs that could be directed to educational programs and opportunities are instead spent on keeping multiple, inefficient schools open. New, consolidated schools work to address the inequalities, he said.”

Thornton said the School Board has heard from many sources that construction prices are routinely 20 to 30 percent below the market peak of 2007.

“However, these prices are not sustainable,” he said. “Interest rates are also at historic lows. There are even options that will delay debt service payments for two years that would allow localities like ours to take advantage of the great pricing and the low interest rates while weathering the economic times.

“When you combine great pricing with low interest rates, the citizens of Mecklenburg County will realize savings that may never be seen again.”

Barbour commented that school construction or renovation has been “studied to death.”

“When I had my first meeting with Dr. Thornton, I said we have been studying it since I first came on the board 10 years ago. This entails a good deal of study.”

Thornton warned that deferred maintenance could “blow up one day.

“I was in a county that had the same discussion over and over and over again for 19 years,” he said. “And finally the fire marshal came in and condemned the building. That’s what it took to get a school built.”

Trustees gather in front

During the joint meeting, members of the board of supervisors sat in their usual seats on the dais in their Goode Building meeting room.

School Board members and administrators sat in the first few rows of the audience.

Robert Puryear, chairman of the school board, conducted his portion of the meeting from the guest speaker’s podium.

He suggested that the next meeting be held at the School Board meeting room where trustees could claim the comfortable chairs.

On second thought, Puryear said, the meeting should be held at a middle school “on the hottest or coldest day of the year.”

Anyone who ever sweated through a graduation at the worst schools in the division would know what he meant, the board chairman said.









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