With construction costs escalating and four new schools to open between now and 2021, Moore County Schools is moving quickly in getting those projects underway.
On Wednesday, school staff updated the Moore County Board of Commissioners on the progress the district is making with the three new elementary schools that will be built with $103 in general obligation bonds approved by nearly 80 percent of voters in a referendum earlier this year. That’s in addition to a school already underway on Camp Easter Road that the county is funding through bank financing.
Following the passage of the bonds in May, Moore County Schools operations director John Birath set out a schedule staggering the schools’ construction start dates by six months. That schedule appears to be accelerating somewhat.
Work on the site for the new Aberdeen K-5 elementary school, which will replace the current K-2 primary and 3-5 elementary schools, is underway off of N.C. 5 between Aberdeen and Pinehurst. A groundbreaking is scheduled for Nov. 27.
The county sold the bonds for that school in August, returning $33.4 million in revenue for the project. Payments on the Aberdeen school bonds will begin in June 2019 and will average about $2 million per year until 2038.
While all four projects are 800-student elementary schools, the first two – Aberdeen and the Camp Easter Road school – will be built along similar lines as one-story structures. The elementary school on Camp Easter Road will draw students from the crowded Sandhills Farm Life in Whispering Pines and Vass-Lakeview.
The Southern Pines and Pinehurst campuses will be two-story, to fit enough square footage to serve 800 students on less acreage.
Similar to the Aberdeen school, the new Southern Pines elementary will replace two existing schools. The school board in 2016 purchased an 18-acre site off of Morganton Road, which was one of few workable parcels on the market.
The county is scheduled to sell the bonds for the Southern Pines school, which has a total budget of $33.8 million, in early 2019 and work could begin as early as February.
“On that site, we identified an opportunity to accelerate the project schedule for a couple reasons,” said Birath. “One is because costs keep going up and the earlier we can accomplish something, the better the opportunity to save money. The other is because we can take our time. The site does have a challenge with the grade across it, and if we can come out early with the site-grading package … we will be able to pick up two months on that project’s construction. That gives us a stronger assurance that we will be ready for students in August of 2020.”
Final designs for the Pinehurst school are still in the works. But the current school, which was designed to serve 400 students, will have to be demolished before work on the new school can begin. Beginning in the fall of 2019, Pinehurst Elementary students will attend school on a modular campus in Rassie Wicker Park for two years.
That school now serves 650 students, and houses its fourth and fifth grade classes in modular classrooms behind the main building. The total cost of the Pinehurst project, including the temporary campus, is $38 million.
In the midst of all that, the county has also pledged to fund a sorely needed expansion at North Moore High school. North Moore is the smallest of Moore County Schools’ three high schools and the only one running its athletic and PE programs out of a single gymnasium.
The proposed expansion would add an auxiliary gym, weight and wrestling rooms, along with a “science wing” comprising laboratories and new classrooms. Renovated locker rooms are also planned.
If that project gets started in the spring, it could be finished in time for the 2020-2021 school year.
The expansion is designed to enhance safety at North Moore by connecting the new part of the school to four existing buildings on the campus, from the front administration office to the gym and auditorium at the rear of the school. But as it stands, it’s likely to come in about $850,000 over the $12 million budgeted.
When the schools bid out the Aberdeen school over the summer, the lowest bid also came in over budget, but the schools then compromised on some of the building specifications to bring costs down. Those tweaks have been applied, where possible, to the Camp Easter Road school already underway.
“We are continuing to evaluate and look at it, just as we did with Aberdeen when it bid,” said Birath. “We did more value-engineering with the contractor before we awarded the contract to see what we could change or do, that would not make anything less sustainable or durable, but would create opportunity for savings.”
But between inflation and volatility in the price of materials and labor, the schools saw costs climb by twice the expected rate this year in the seven months between the Camp Easter Road and Aberdeen school bids.
“Keep in mind these schools have the same number of classroom spaces, same square feet, same brick block, roof,” Birath said. “So that gets us a little concerned with what’s going on right now.”
Should that rate of cost escalation continue, it would add $1 million to the projected cost of the Southern Pines school and $1.4 million to the Pinehurst school by the time those projects are bid out.