Moore County Schools might not have any high-profile building projects underway, now that all four new elementary schools and the expansion at North Moore High have fully opened, but that may not be the case for long.
The Board of Education is gearing up to move forward with renovating the gymnasiums of at least three elementary schools within the next year, and replacing Carthage Elementary is still on the periphery of the district’s broader discussions about future construction spending.
While the board has dedicated its efforts this year to addressing smaller projects like new roofing and heating system repairs, it’s beginning to consider what the next significant phase of school construction might entail.
Needs that have emerged since the district last worked on a master facilities plan include modernizing West End Elementary, adding classrooms at Cameron Elementary and Crains Creek Middle to match those schools’ core capacity, and expanding Vass-Lakeview Elementary.
Expanding Pinecrest and Union Pines, or building a new high school to offset over-enrollment, remain at the forefront of discussions as well.
“There’s still concern about dealing with a new high school, which really could mean that Advanced Career Center, it could mean some high school in between Union Pines and Pinecrest, and unfortunately it’s the most expensive option that there is, because a high school is the most expensive thing to build,” said board member Robert Levy, who suggested that a new high school and replacing Carthage Elementary might be a sufficient master facilities plan in themselves due to the scope of those projects.
“It still is what is starting us in the face, and I think politically we need to prepare to go to the county commissioners and find some way to get this new high school built, somehow.”
Superintendent Bob Grimesey pointed out that, even with a potential new high school, Pinecrest and Union Pines would still need renovating.
“It’s very important you do a comprehensive needs assessment and look at everything so that you know what your tradeoffs are if you decide to go after one big, expensive project, what is it that you’re not going to be able to do and for how long can you put that off?” he said.
“Taking a more comprehensive approach is going to put the full menu out there, so that … you can let everybody know that you’re evaluating all the priorities.”
All of these discussions are taking place in an environment of steadily escalating construction costs. Price spikes related to materials shortages, mostly tied to pandemic-induced bottlenecks in global supply chains, and difficulty hiring workers, have pushed the projected price of the smaller construction projects on the district’s two-year horizon. The costs have risen from $14.6 million to $16.6 million.
That includes the 37 building-level repair and maintenance projects on a districtwide plan the board approved in February. The most prominent of those were new running tracks at Pinecrest and North Moore.
The district is now funding some of those projects, and others related to outdoor activities and air quality, with COVID-19 relief funding that will funnel into Moore County Schools over the next two years.
The district plans to use proceeds from the sales of the old Aberdeen and Southern Pines school campuses, as well as the $1.6 million in annual capital funding it receives between the county and the state education lottery, for the rest.
Separately, the board has also agreed to pursue renovations of the gymnasiums at the Carthage, Cameron, Highfalls, Sandhills Farm Life, Vass-Lakeview and Westmoore elementary schools.
Those six gyms date from those schools’ construction as middle and high schools. They aren’t air-conditioned, and adding climate control would be minimally effective in their current shape. All six are scheduled for renovation in the next eight years.
Earlier this year, Moore County Schools’ Director for Operations John Birath projected that it would cost $12.7 million to modernize all sx of those facilities. Cost escalations have pushed that estimate to $17.5 million.
So it’s now dubious whether that full portfolio of gym projects will be within reach with the funding sources that administrators have identified. During their work session on Monday, board members were prepared to tap into yet another funding source earlier than they’d anticipated in the interest of getting at least three of those gyms renovated.
As the three new elementary schools in Aberdeen, Southern Pines and Pinehurst were being built over the past two years, the Moore County Board of Commissioners sold voter-approved bonds to pay for them. That $103 million bond package was approved by 80 percent of Moore County voters in 2018.
Because of the county’s strong credit rating and the demand for the debt, investors paid more than $10 million over the price of the bonds. That extra money was set aside for additional construction costs and about $8.5 million remains.
School board members had planned to apply most of the balance of those bond premiums to the gym renovations. Now those funds won’t go as far as planned. On Monday, administrators recommended applying that money to modernizing the Cameron, Highfalls and Westmoore gyms.
Once the school board requests that the bond premiums be allocated to those projects, the schools should be able to get started by mid-2022.
“I know we’re coming up short on money, but it’s still good news to know that we might be able to forge ahead and get started on the first three within the very near future,” said Chair Libby Carter. “It’s disappointing that costs continue to rise.”
It will take nearly three years for the effects of COVID-19 relief funding to finish trickling down through Moore County Schools’ capital account, but by the time it does the district will have another $3 million to potentially then complete the Sandhills Farm Life gym project as well. That will leave $500,000 to apply to the combined $6.5 million projected cost of the Vass-Lakeview and Carthage gyms.
“That $500,00 I’m sure is going to get eaten up in inflation, so how soon can we start these projects?” Levy asked. “Let’s get it done already.”
The gym projects have never been formally prioritized, but in earlier discussions the gym at Carthage Elementary was considered the most urgent. That’s because of some of the structural issues present.
Those same issues mean that renovating the Carthage gym would be about twice the cost of any of the others. While that may appear all the more reason to do it, Grimesey said that there may be a better solution on the horizon.
“Carthage is among what we think will be among the top priorities for perhaps replacement, so sitting here as of today and maybe for the next couple of months, of the six projects Carthage is the one that’s a little bit more fluid and it may have a separate remedy that would be related to a broader investment approach,” he said.
Aside from the gymnasium, Carthage is also due for total renovations to two of its academic buildings as well as roof replacements on the auditorium and Buildings 5, 6, and 7.
A special meeting has been called by the Carthage Century Committee, a local economic development group, to discuss the "future need for a larger school." The school system's administration will give a presentation during the meeting, which begins at 6 p.m. on Tuesday at the historic courthouse in downtown Carthage.
“We believe that the presentation will show an evident need to replace the school,” said Tommy Phillips, chairman of the Century Committee's subcommittee focused on the future of Carthage Elementary. “We really want to educate people so they know what the needs are and why we believe the school should be replaced.”
The issue hits close to home for Dan Bonillio, a Carthage town commissioner who plans to attend the meeting. He said his family moved here from Cumberland County for better-quality schools, and two of his four daughters currently attend Carthage Elementary.
“I don’t think there’s an argument amongst anyone in Carthage right now about the need for the school to be replaced,” he said. “We’re just trying to figure out how to go about it and what the timeline is.”
Bonillo added that Carthage is “primed for a lot of growth” in the years ahead, with the town’s population expected to double by 2026.
“It’s my understanding that once this growth comes in, we’re going to be tapped (for capacity at the school),” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of traction on residential developments and that’s a pretty good indicator that we’re going to need to upgrade the school, and quick.”
Staff writer Jaymie Baxley contributed to this report.