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Second firm eyes package deal for school project / July 18, 2019
Halifax County School officials have been told to expect another architect’s proposal for construction of a new HCHS — bringing the number of offers from firms eager to snag the job to two.

The school division has a July 22 deadline to obtain offers from architects and contractors that want to construct a new county high school under the state’s Public-Private Education and Infrastructure Act (PPEA). Halifax County Public Schools already has received one package deal for the project, from Roanoke-based partners Branch Builds, the general contractor that renovated the middle school a decade ago, and RRMM Architects. Terms of that proposal have not been disclosed.

The Branch Builds PPEA proposal, submitted in June, triggered a 45-day window for other firms to submit rival offers. With the deadline arriving Sunday, the school division has not received any new formal submissions.

But Scott Worner, interim director of secondary education and the school division’s point person on the high school project, said he has heard from another group that is preparing its own high school plan: “We’ve been told emphatically by another architect that they want to turn one in,” said Worner. “We’ve been told that architect has called repeatedly.”

Worner added that he had been contacted not only by the architectural firm, but also by a general contractor that would serve as partner on the project.

The PPEA law was enacted by the legislature to streamline construction of major infrastructure projects and allow government and commercial entities to work more closely together. PPEA projects offer an advantage over Request for Proposals (RFP) in that project costs can be paid upfront rather than at the end of the endeavor, lessening the impact of inflation or market disruption costs.

Separate from the PPEA process, the School Board has identified three firms that are considered candidates to design a new high school, working through the conventional RFP process: RRMM Architects, Grimm & Parker and Moseley Architects. The latter firm conducted a study of the high school that yielded two general recommendations: either renovate the existing building for $88 million, or build a new facility for $99 million. Moseley presented the cost estimates as preliminary, not final.

With the possibility of two PPEA submissions, “At first we [would have] a one bar buffet, but now we have a two bar buffet,” said Worner.

The cost figures of the Branch Builds proposal are being kept under wraps by school officials, but the public portion of firm’s two-part submission to the School Board contained a list of projects that the Roanoke company has either finished or is in the process of building.

One such project is West Cabarrus High School in Cabarras County, N.C. That high school — a 264,054 square feet facility that includes CTE labs, a 720 seat auditorium, a 1,280 seat spectator gym, and a 150 seat auxiliary gym along with a new football stadium and other fields — is budgeted at $62 million, well below the $99 million cost figure developed by Moseley Architects. The new HCHS facility is envisioned at 262,500 square feet, significantly smaller than the existing 313,000 square foot HCHS footprint.

“That’s a great price for a high school,” said Worner, who has contacted Cabarrus County school officials about their project. But Worner cautioned that the $62 million figure does not include demolition costs for the old high school, architectural design, or engineering costs. Instead, the $62 million cost is for brick and mortar, construction, and site costs only, he noted.

In addition to a new high school facility, contractors and architects are being asked to develop plans to renovate or replace Tuck Dillard Stadium, fix the tennis court lights and resurface the high school’s track.

“[Tuck Dillard Stadium] is one of the things we’re looked at in this project, but until costs are generated, it’s something that could remain on the table or could be made a separate project,” Worner said.

Worner said building costs tend to rise by about 6 percent per year and that, according to the architects he has been communicating with, there is a shortage of labor in the construction industry.

“They can’t find enough labor to do all the projects,” Worner said.

The school division has tasked a facilities review committee — comprised of school trustees, administrators, teachers and staff, joined by outside representatives — with reviewing the construction proposals and making a recommendation to the School Board. Ultimately, Worner said, the review panel will have to see what other plans come in before endorsing a partner for the project.

“This is a hurry up and wait kind of thing,” said Worner.

In the meantime, Worner expressed hope that voters will back a proposed sales tax referendum to generate revenue to fix the high school.

“I hope that the public will rally behind the schools. Everyone went there or has kids that went there,” he said. Worner added, “I think it’s a remarkable opportunity for Halifax and I know that the rest of the Commonwealth is watching closely.”

If successful, the sales tax referendum will establish a precedent that other localities can potentially use to rebuild and renovate their own infrastructure. If Halifax opts not to enact the sales tax, the only other viable source of revenue to pay for school capital improvements would be property taxes.

“Most people in the general public don’t keep an eye on it because to them a tax is a tax, but I think they’d realize that a sales tax is a much more gentle way to raise revenue,” Worner said. “I don’t live in Halifax. I live in Mecklenburg, but I still shop here and I would be doing my part.”

Members of the Board of Supervisors have expressed support for passage of the sales tax referendum, but supervisors have expressed doubts about the School Board’s plans to build a new school. But Worner said the school administration is working with county government leaders to get everyone on the same page.

“Our superintendent Mark Lineburg and Scott Simpson [the county administrator] talk on a weekly basis. They have a great rapport and share information all the time,” he said.

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