“You don’t just decide one day that you want to build a school and just expect it to be open within 12 months.”
Those words, spoken last week by Moore County Schools Superintendent Bob Grimesey, are a blinding glimpse of the obvious, yet they’re also dramatically illustrative of the issue the community faces as it relates to our future school construction needs.
County officials have just finished a breathtaking round of school ribbon cuttings — three new elementary schools and a vastly expanded and renovated North Moore High — in the past year and a half. But those projects, for which voters approved borrowing $103 million, don’t address a logjam of competing priorities.
It took the better part of three years to arrive at a consensus over what to build and how to fund it, and there’s no reason to believe the next round or priorities will be developed quicker. To that end, the Board of Education can exercise real leadership by initiating a new conversation with community and business leaders — and the Board of Commissioners — about future building priorities before we let too much more time go by.
Plenty of Needs
There’s no lack of candidates worth considering for a second round of construction. West End Elementary on N.C. 211 is virtually bursting at the seams. Pinecrest and Union Pines high schools, once top priorities because they were far over enrollment capacity, remain badly in need of updates and expansion. Some have mentioned building a fourth high school to serve southern Moore County, but such a project would likely top $100 million on its own and could lead to a massive socio-economic imbalance of schools.
Then there’s Carthage Elementary, the subject last week of a community meeting at which Grimesey and other school officials outlined what it would take to replace the 70-year-old school. Carthage is expecting to see growth within the next 10 years that would overburden the current school. But replacing it could cost more than $50 million, and that’s in today’s dollars.
Dan Bonillio, a member of the Carthage Board of Commissioners, told The Pilot the town could see its population double in the next five years.
“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.”
Make It a Priority
“Quick” is not something this county does well, especially when it comes to school construction. Before this latest boomlet, Moore County went 10 years without building a single classroom. That’s why this discussion about priorities and potential funding options should get started now.
With Grimesey scheduled to retire at the end of January, the school board should agree now that, among the usual criteria, superintendent candidates should also have experience with school construction projects. That experience should be around community consensus building as much as managing construction details.
But let’s not wait until a superintendent is hired and “comfortable” in his role to start talking about priorities. The board, the professional staff and the community know the data, the trends and the needs.
There are bound to be those who say we shouldn’t do more building until we’ve paid for the prior projects. Normally, we wouldn’t disagree. But we also are likely to experience unnaturally low borrowing costs for some time to come. Moore County carries little debt on its books — the current projects are financed at ridiculously low rates — making it more than capable of financing new work at convenient rates.
Given growth patterns — some projections show population growth of 50 percent in the 30 years — we cannot afford to wait much longer. Let’s at least get started talking.