A few months after breaking ground, construction on the new Southern Pines elementary school is far enough behind schedule that Moore County Schools has moved the opening date back to January 2021.
The school will replace the current Southern Pines Elementary, which serves students in grades 3-5, and K-2 Southern Pines Primary in a single K-5 school in Morganton Park North. Grading on the sloping topography to prepare it for addition of a split-level building started this past winter and construction has been underway since June.
The Moore County Board of Education bought the 18-acre property — part of which was donated by the Van Camp family — in 2016 for $1.3 million.This March, the Moore County Board of Education granted a $30.3 million construction contract to Monteith Construction.
Originally, the school was scheduled to be finished in July, giving the schools only a few weeks to furnish and outfit it before the start of school in August 2020. Earlier this summer, the schools adopted a 2020-2021 school calendar that starts the year two weeks earlier than in recent years.
“We thought we had allocated enough time for the permitting process for this project to go through and to be at a point where they’d receive authorization to construct from all authorities having jurisdiction,” John Birath, Moore County Schools’ director for operations, told the school board on Tuesday.
But based on the work completed so far — about 10 percent of the total — the schools aren’t projected to move into the school until Sept. 17, 2020 and there’s little hope of regaining lost time.
“We’ve worked with them on looking at accelerating the schedule and compressing the time, but with a shortage of tradespeople in the workplace right now, they said it’s not going to be possible,” Birath said.
By comparison, McDeeds Creek Elementary began construction in March 2018 and was slated to finish this past July. But the final inspections of the building weren’t complete until mid-August, the day before teachers started moving into it.
“All along that completion date at the end of July also bothered me,” said Superintendent Bob Grimesey. “It was so close to the beginning of the school year. This removes all doubt, it removes all concern about where we’re going to be on the first days of school. So our teachers will be able to focus on just getting ready for the school year and not be worried about this last-minute, rushed move-in to a new school.”
The district is now proposing that students will move from Southern Pines Primary and Elementary into the new school on Jan. 4, 2021 after the two-week winter break.
Even with further delays, Grimesey said, the school should be complete by the end of October 2020. So the district would have six to eight weeks to install new furniture and technology throughout the building, and teachers would have more lead time to begin organizing their classrooms.
The delay will be expensive for the district, as it expects to save $350,000 per year in operating costs when the two existing schools close. The district will also have to wait an additional semester before consolidating the administrative staff for a single school. Tonya Wagner, current principal at Southern Pines Elementary, will take over as principal at the new school.
Moore County Schools is building the new Southern Pines elementary, along with new elementary schools in Aberdeen and Pinehurst, with $103 million in general obligation bonds approved in 2018. The Aberdeen school off of N.C. 5 began construction last November and is now more than halfway complete. All three of the schools are designed to serve 800 students.
In other business Tuesday, the board discussed awarding a contract to build the new Pinehurst school to Thomas Construction Company of Wilmington. Though its $31.8 million cost proposal was the lowest offered by any of the four companies that bid on the project last month, it’s still $2.9 million over the construction budget.
The school will be built on the Dundee Road property that has served as a Pinehurst school campus for decades. Students are spending the current school year and 2020-2021 on a temporary campus in Rassie Wicker Park.
The Southern Pines school also came in over budget, by about $2.7 million. Costlier than expected building contracts have put the three schools about $3.6 million over the $103 million in bonds that voters approved, and the county commissioners have not given the schools any indication that additional funds will be forthcoming.
On Tuesday, school staff proposed cutting $800,000 from the school’s budget by eliminating all options not included in Aberdeen and Southern Pines schools and other economizing measures like substituting more economical paving options and staircase surfaces, and reducing the number of acoustic panels. The schools can also potentially apply up to $1.4 million from the Aberdeen and Southern Pines project budgets if those schools don’t consume all of the funds set aside for unforeseen costs during the construction process.
Grimesey also proposed creating a fund from the schools’ regular capital funding to cover the rest of the deficit as needed.
Currently, the district has banked $1.7 million from the state education lottery — or approximately two years’ worth of Moore County Schools’ funding from that source. Another $400,000 from the local capital fund is also in reserve. That’s about half of the schools’ annual allocation from the county specifically for capital projects.
“We have purposely been hedging this money against unknown situations that we are facing with our current projects and based upon county financing for other requests that Dr. Grimesey presented to the commissioners previously,” Birath said.
Applying all of that reserve funding to the district’s current construction projects would leave about $500,000 extra to cover unforeseen costs for all three schools.
Between the state lottery and the county’s annual capital allocation, the district receives about $1.5 million each year that’s designated for building and maintaining school facilities. Applying those funds to the new schools will put Moore County Schools further behind in catching up with its long-term plan to maintain existing schools. A plan devised in 2017 to cover the district’s needs for the next two decades totaled $72 million.
“In the absence of any other help from any other source, if it’s left in our hands our only option is to not proceed with construction of the new Pinehurst elementary school. I’ve struggled with this, but there really isn’t an option,” said Grimesey.
“Now that the children are in the temporary school I think that does put us in a situation where we won’t even entertain the possibility of not doing it.”