The Transylvania Times -

By John Lanier
Editor 

School Board Fields Building Questions - Brevard, NC

 

March 23, 2017



Why did school administrators choose major renovations over new schools? Should the local school system’s Master Facilities Plan be paid for with a limited obligation bond, a general bond referendum or a combination of the two? What are the timelines for construction and for pre-construction financing? How will student learning be affected during construction?

Those were just some of the issues raised at Rosman Elementary School Monday night as approximately a dozen people attended the second community input session held by the Transylvania County Board of Education regarding major capital needs and a possible bond referendum.

The opening presentation was similar to the one made at Brevard High School earlier this month, in which the age of the schools, the cost of construction, etc. were shown (See sidebar on page 12A).

When consultants Clark/Nexsen presented their findings to the school board in the fall of 2015, they reported the cost of renovating Brevard High, which is in the worst shape of all the county’s schools, would be near the cost of building a new school.

Superintendent Dr. Jeff McDaris said the school administration decided to go with major renovations because it would be more cost effective and some structures are still quite usable. He also said that if a new campus were built, the county would have to find 80 suitable acres that are not in a floodplain and purchase that land, which would increase the costs.

Norris Barger, director of business services and plant operations, said doing extensive renovations means that the newer, more functional facilities at Brevard High – the science wing, the CTE wing, football stadium, main gym, etc. – would still be used.

“It’s saving us quite a bit of money by doing it that way,” said Barger.

McDaris said the elementary schools would look basically the same after the renovations, but the two high schools would look dramatically different. The latter two schools would be multi-story with a front façade similar to buildings of yesteryear.

“You could create a new building that incorporated the look of the original classic structures that used to be there,” said McDaris.

When one woman said functionality is more important than appearance, McDaris agreed, but said “curb appeal matters.”

He also noted that appearance and functionality often go hand in hand. When several of the elementary schools were built in the 1970s, the “open classroom” with no windows was popular but the schools did not look like schools. He said schools with windows are not only more attractive but studies also have shown the benefits of students being exposed to natural light.

Vice Chair Ron Kiviniemi said much of the work that needs to be done is “above the ceiling or below the ground,” with the heating and air conditioning systems, electrical wiring for technology, etc.

“They are essential but not glamorous,” said Kiviniemi.

Kiviniemi also said he personally prefers having the first phase of the three construction phases paid for with the limited obligation bond, which the county commissioners could use without having a referendum. He explained that with construction costs escalating at 12 percent a year, starting sooner would save the county and taxpayers money.

“That’s just my personal opinion,” said Kiviniemi.

At previous school board meetings Kiviniemi said that while he prefers phase one be paid with a limited obligation bond, the last two phases be paid for through a general obligation bond, which would require a referendum.

Larry Chapman, chairman of the Transylvania County Board of Commissioners, asked at what point the school board would have enough details to go to a lending organization.

School board attorney Chad Donnahoo said the Local Government Commission determines what is needed for a limited obligation bond. He said they do not require specific details about the construction, but are more concerned if the county can over the limited obligation bond.

Donnahoo said it should not be a problem to be approved for a limited bond of $40 million.

He said that several counties in the region – Burke, Buncombe Henderson and Yancey – have all constructed schools with limited obligation bonds.

“That is a very traditional way to build schools in North Carolina,” said Donnahoo.

Kiviniemi said that debt from the last bond referendum will be paid off this year and those allocations, which would soon be freed up, could be used to pay off a new bond.

When asked about the next steps in the process, Kiviniemi said the Board of Education would meet with the county commissioners to discuss needs and funding and then have actual drawings and models of each school. They would then present the details of both the construction and funding to communities throughout the county before having a bond referendum.

“We have to have your support,” said Board of Education Chair Tawny McCoy, who added that many of those at the last meeting at Brevard High were strongly supportive of the plan.

Chapman said that information needs to be gathered and presented as soon as possible.

“I want to know what the public will support,” said Chapman.

He said taxpayers need to know what financial commitment they will be making.

“I think that’s the key,” said Chapman.

Chapman also asked how quickly the phases would be done.

Barger said each phase should take about 18 to 24 months to complete, with all of the projects being completed in six years.

The length of time of the program and the construction in phases, however, led some parents to question how much impact the construction would have on students.

One parent who also teaches expressed concern that her child in fifth grade might constantly be advancing into schools where new construction would be occurring, as well as the day-to-day impact construction would have on instruction.

“There’s going to be some issues with that,” said McDaris. “We’ll have to adapt. It won’t be perfect.”

Barger said no renovations would be done in any of the buildings in which students are actually working. Some of the work also will be done during the summer when students are not in school.

Kiviniemi said when he was principal at Brevard Elementary School, a new wing was added and the classrooms were re-constituted from “open” to “self-contained.” He said the noise during that time in the classroom was “minimal.”

“It wasn’t as bad as I anticipated it would be,” Kiviniemi said.

McCoy said the architects who would be working on the projects are familiar with school construction and know how to minimize the impact on students in adjacent buildings. Barger said the students might be using a mobile unit for a semester.

Board members said students and faculty would not be the only ones to benefit from the modernized schools.

Board member Marty Griffin said many of the schools are being used after hours by a variety of organizations and they would benefit from the newer facilities.

Kiviniemi said good schools benefit the entire community. He said that when businesses relocate, they look for a good quality of life, a good workforce and good schools.

“This is an investment in the community as a whole,” said Kiviniemi.

Board members were asked what the impact would be on annual capital needs if a bond were passed and these renovations undertaken.

McDaris and Barger said those requests would decrease because the items such as the HVAC systems would be new. But there would still be other capital costs, such as technology.

“Technology is an ever present, ever changing monster sometimes,” McDaris said. “There’s always going to be a replacement issue with technology.”

Kiviniemi estimated there would still be a need of roughly $900,000 to $1 million a year to cover other items, such as repaving parking park lots and refinishing gym floors.

Scott Strickler, principal of Rosman Elementary, then turned the conversation on its head when asked what would happen if nothing is done regarding the Master Facilities Plan.

“There will be parts that will be in bad shape,” said McDaris.

McDaris said the custodial crews do a “fantastic job” of keeping the schools clean and looking nice, but “underneath it’s starting to fall apart.”

Kiviniemi said that annual capital requests would double or triple.

McCoy said more safety issues would occur and they would have to deal with them in an emergency situation.

Board member Betty Scruggs McGaha said there are other costs besides the financial costs. She said she has worked in almost every school in the county and the air filtering systems in the schools are “deplorable.” She said a lot of schools have mold and that is having a detrimental effect on those many students who have allergies and asthma.

She also said the community and commissioners have worked together before and the community has supported previous bond issues.

“I’m very optimistic that we’re going to get this,” she said.

“We’re not asking for a Cadillac,” said Griffin. “We’re just asking for a Chevrolet that will do the job.”

Other News

•The board unanimously passed a resolution in support of state Rep. Cody Henson’s bill to make the school board a non-partisan race again. Last year the state legislature passed a bill that made the school board election partisan.

•McDaris reported that there has been no change on the fate of HB 13, which would have eased restrictions on the number of students in K-3 classrooms. The bill, which passed the House 114-0, is stalled in the Senate.

McDaris said he met with state Sen. Chuck Edwards last week but did not receive a definitive answer about what the Senate would do. McDaris said he is “about 99 percent sure” the Senate is not going to adopt HB 13 as it is written.

McCoy said that due to inaction on the bill by the Senate, the state school board association has recommended school boards request a separate line item to fund the lower class sizes.

•McDaris reported that the federal budget released by the Trump administration calls for a $9.2 billion cut in the Education Department, with another $1.4 billion being shifted to private and charter schools.

•McDaris also reported that a bill re-establishing the N.C. Teaching Fellows program is making its way through the General Assembly.

Kiviniemi said he is pleased to see the General Assembly making those efforts, although the program would be on a much smaller scale with 160 students a year as compared to the 500 students it used to enroll annually.

•A bill that would change the way school grades are determined is also moving through the General Assembly. At present, school report cards are based 80 percent on achievement and 20 on growth. The new bill would base the school grade on 50 percent each.

 
 

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