Renovations vs. new schools: What's in Wake's bond plan?

khui@newsobserver.comSeptember 21, 2013 

Garner High School

Students move between classes at Garner Magnet High School Wednesday, September 18, 2013, in Garner, N.C. Principal Drew Cook calls the intersection between the buildings like I-40, I-95 and U.S. 70 converging.

ETHAN HYMAN — ehyman@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Bond vote approaches

    Wake County voters go to the polls Oct. 8 to vote on an $810 million bond issue that would allow the county to borrow money to build and renovate schools and stock them with modern technology.

    The plan was proposed by the county board of education and approved by the county commissioners. It would result in an increase in county property taxes; the owner of a home assessed for taxes at $263,500 would pay about an additional $145 a year.

    Today’s story focuses on the school renovation projects the bond issue would pay for. It is part of a series that will examine the result of the county’s method of school funding. We’ll also look at proposed alternatives for paying for school construction and organized efforts for and against the bond proposal.

— Drew Cook is more than just the principal of Garner High School. He also plays weatherman.

Cook needs to know whether it will rain so he can switch on the dehumidifiers in the media center to make sure mold doesn’t grow on the books and walls. He also has to be aware that students may be distracted after getting drenched walking the quarter-mile from the farthest classroom trailers to the main building.

It makes sense then that the Garner High School community wants Wake County voters to approve an $810 million school construction bond issue on the Oct. 8 ballot. The plan would include $67.1 million for renovating the school.

“We’ll get by with whatever resources we have,” Cook said. “But with 21st century resources, we want to give the students the best we can.”

But the cost of renovations such as those proposed for Garner High is drawing complaints from opponents of the bond issue. They want to know why Wake’s proposed major renovations would cost nearly as much as, and sometimes more than, the cost of building a new school.

“We understand that schools need renovations,” said Duane Cutlip, vice president of the East Wake Republican Club, which opposes the bond issue. “But they’re looking at a $67 million renovation.”

Wake County school construction programs have walked a line between building schools to handle enrollment growth and providing renovations for older schools. A large number of renovations can help win over parents who might not be as inclined to support bonds that only pay for new schools.

The $810 million bond issue would pay the bulk of a $939.9 million school construction program. Much of the program – $533.8 million – would pay for 16 new schools to help keep up with projections that 20,000 more students could arrive in Wake by 2018.

A little more than half of Wake’s 170 schools would share in $244.9 million for renovations. Of that, 79 schools would get small amounts to replace aging equipment, such as work on heating and cooling systems, electrical systems and interior finishes.

‘You renovate your home’

“These are 50-year-old schools that we need to make sure that we keep up to modern standards,” school board Vice Chairwoman Christine Kushner said. “You renovate your home. Not everyone tears down their home or moves into a new one.”

Three schools would get a sort of promissory note that their major renovations would be funded in a possible 2016 bond issue. Next month’s vote would provide 10 percent of the cost for renovating Stough Elementary School in Raleigh, East Wake Middle School and Apex High School.

Six schools would see their major renovations fully funded at costs between $11.6 million for Rolesville Elementary School and $67.1 million for Garner High. The renovations for Vandora Springs Elementary in Garner, Brooks and Green elementary schools in Raleigh, and Lincoln Heights Elementary School in Fuquay-Varina would cost between $21.4 million and $24.6 million each.

A new Wake high school costs about $70 million, and a new elementary school can cost $23.6 million.

“You can’t expect to spend more for renovating than for building a school,” Wake County Taxpayers Association Vice President Tony Pecoraro said. “That’s a red flag to me.”

Four decades of use

Pecoraro is skeptical of the way the school district calculates costs, pointing to school administrators’ statement earlier this year that renovations for Fuquay-Varina High School would cost $82 million. After being challenged by county commissioners, school officials rechecked their calculations and said an error overestimated the amount by $19 million.

The school system has been aiming to make major renovations at schools after buildings hit 40 years of use.

Joe Desormeaux, the school system’s assistant superintendent for facilities, said the schools slated for major renovations have been under consideration since before a $970 million bond issue was passed in 2006. He said the projects were determined based on schools’ health and safety conditions and whether their capacities could be expanded.

Based on past experience, Desormeaux said it costs more to do construction work at an existing school than at a new school. This includes a 17 percent premium on new construction because, he said, companies bid more to do the same work on existing schools. He said the system also sets aside 10 percent for contingency costs – double the percentage for a new school.

Desormeaux said the system has to deal with issues such as demolition, removing asbestos and lead paint, and unexpected problems that crop up at older buildings.

Some of the schools slated for major renovations would see a majority of their square footage demolished to make way for what would essentially become a brand-new school. Desormeaux said Wake follows state standards to determine whether the costs of renovations are so high that demolition is warranted.

At Garner High School, 39 percent of the square footage would be demolished. The majority of the original 1967 construction would be replaced with a four-story building. The school would get new classrooms and a new auditorium along with renovations to other rooms.

Garner High would see a net gain of 100,000 square feet, allowing it to hold all 2,431 students in one building instead of spreading them out on a campus that includes 40 mobile classrooms.

Cook, the principal, said the renovations would solve a variety of issues that affect student learning.

Cook said the renovations would allow him to shorten the time for students to transfer between classes and to no longer worry about evacuations prompted by a malfunctioning fire alarm system. It also will allow hundreds more students whose choices have been limited by lack of space to take career and technical education classes.

“I’ve had some people tell me we should feel lucky with what we have,” Cook said. “Wake County shouldn’t be comparing itself to the lower level of the spectrum. I think it should be comparing itself to those providing 21st century schools.”

Cook, school board Chairman Keith Sutton and Wake County Board of Commissioners Chairman Joe Bryan will conduct a press conference Tuesday at Garner High to explain the need for the bond issue and why the school would get $67.1 million in renovations.

Johnston does it for less

Cutlip, of the East Wake Republican Club, points to Johnston County’s lower costs for building and renovating schools.

“We need major renovations,” he said. “We need buildings. But what we’re building are monuments to architecture.”

Desormeaux said it can cost more to build in Wake than Johnston and that Wake tends to build schools with more floors. He said also that Wake uses materials that may be more expensive because they’re intended to last longer and require less maintenance.

Patrick Jacobs, chief operations officer for the Johnston County school system, said Johnston uses materials that are just as good as Wake.

Most of Johnston County’s schools were built in the 1990s or later. But Jacobs said the Johnston system is able to avoid asking for major renovation projects for the older schools in bond issues.

“We provide daily preventive maintenance,” Jacobs said. “Our goal is to avoid doing major renovations just because it’s 45 years old.”

In November, Johnston County voters will be asked to approve a $57 million school-construction bond issue. The most expensive renovation would be a $4 million gymnasium for Princeton High School.

Cutlip said he hopes defeat of the Wake bond issue would force the school board to come up with a smaller construction plan next year.

A Republican for bonds

School board member John Tedesco said he considers Cutlip to be a “dear friend.” But he said his fellow Republicans are making a mistake turning the bond vote into a partisan issue.

“No one is talking about building mega-monuments to architecture,” Tedesco said in an interview last week.

“I’m looking for safe, clean, quality facilities for our children, and, unfortunately, schools aren’t cheap.”

Tedesco made similar statements in support of the bonds at last week’s school board meeting.

Julie Growney, the PTA president at Brooks Elementary, said people need to think about how modern facilities will improve conditions for students and teachers.

“It will help our children grow and flourish,” she said. “That’s the most important thing.”

Hui: 919-829-4534

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