The county’s request to borrow money to build a new elementary school on the outskirts of Southern Pines will go to the state with a record of resounding public endorsement.
A total of 121 school supporters counted off the historic courthouse in Carthage on Tuesday in an official total to record in the county’s application to the Local Government Commission.
Last month, the Moore County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to finance the construction cost of that school up to $31 million. But whether the county elects to proceed with a limited obligation bond or through a private bank, the Local Government Commission under the state treasurer’s office will have to approve the funding plan.
Tuesday’s public hearing was held to furnish an example of the community’s level of support for the proposed school and the level of debt involved in building it.
Speakers included parents at Sandhills Farm Life and Vass-Lakeview, the two crowded schools who stand to see enrollment numbers fall below their buildings’ capacity in 2019 if the new school opens on Camp Easter Road as planned. But several parents at Pinehurst Elementary, who will not directly benefit from that project, also registered their support for that school as the first step in Moore County Schools’ broader facilities plan.
“I’m not only concerned with the Area I school, which will impact my own children, but all of Moore County Schools… We are one county, we are one school district, but we have many needs,” said Erica Davis, president of the Sandhills Farm Life PTA.
Whispering Pines Mayor Michelle Lexo and Mayor Pro Tem Bob Zschoche, Pinehurst Mayor Nancy Fiorillo, and Southern Pines Mayor David McNeill also endorsed the project.
McNeill, who was involved in the community task force that contributed to formulating Moore County Schools’ original master facilities plan in 2013, said that the renovations and new construction are needed now more than ever.
“Although this plan has undergone several revisions over the past four years, the fact remains that not one school has been built since the completion of the work in 2013,” he said. “The demographic makeup of the municipalities continues to change. More families with school-aged children are calling southern Moore County home now.”
Much of that growth is a result of military personnel choosing to live in Moore County as a more attractive alternative than Fayetteville. Several of the parents who spoke on Tuesday were military, former military and spouses who attested to the value they placed on quality public education when deciding where to move.
Of 19 speakers, only Bill Loesser was opposed to financing the project immediately through non-voter-approved channels. Loesser, a resident of the McDeeds Creek neighborhood proximal to the proposed school site, presented concerns about traffic flow in and out of the school and suggested the commissioners add the project to the general obligation bond package expected to go before the voters next May.
This week, the Moore County Board of Education adopted a resolution to include funding for three elementary schools in that package: $103 million for 800-student schools serving Aberdeen, Southern Pines and Pinehurst. Construction on all three schools could be finished in 2020, with the Southern Pines and Aberdeen schools opening for the 2020-2021 school year and the Pinehurst school opening midyear.
But unless construction on the Camp Easter Road school begins in early 2018 for an August 2019, the opening dates of the following three schools are likely to be delayed as well.
“You’ve seen the support is virtually unanimous to do this Area I school,” said Aberdeen Town Manager Paul Sabiston, who was on hand representing Mayor Robbie Farrell.
“It’s very difficult to prioritize. In Aberdeen we have schools that are 70 years old, in Pinehurst they have schools that are overcrowded and about the same age, Southern Pines has schools just as old… It’s hard to decide what’s first and what’s the most important. We think they all are, and I think you agree with us.”
Like Vass-Lakeview and Sandhills Farm Life, Pinehurst Elementary’s enrollment has grown well beyond the school’s capacity and modular buildings serve as classrooms to handle the overflow. The new Aberdeen and Southern Pines elementary schools proposed would replace the outdated K-2 and 3-5 schools now serving those communities.
Parents cast aspersions on the security of those mobile classrooms, both with respect to extreme weather and campus intruders, as students travel in and out of their main school buildings for elective classes and to access core amenities like the cafeteria and media center.
“I am here to express my support for all funding for the schools, and in particular to ask you all as county commissioners to support funding our schools and to take the necessary steps to provide the funds so our schools can be safe, appropriate places for students to learn,” said Emily Richeson, a Pinehurst Elementary parent.
“It’s appalling to me that anyone in this community can sit there and claim these facilities are adequate or safe or providing the best learning environment for our children. Even if you can solve the overcrowding issue present and find new spaces in other schools for these children, it does not address the fact that our schools are falling apart.”
Several speakers explicitly endorsed tax increases as necessary to repay the debt associated with the first elementary school and with phasing in the district’s entire facilities plan.
“We need to ask ourselves what’s the price of our children’s future and compare that,” said Christine MacRoberts, whose son attends Sandhills Farm Life. “By all means, raise our taxes…. we can find a way to afford it.”