Wake school leaders defend use of new school designs

khui@newsobserver.comJanuary 15, 2014 

— Wake County school leaders on Wednesday touted how they’re saving money building schools, amid questions from county commissioners about how taxpayer money is being spent.

School administrators pointed to how they scaled back the cost of the 16 new schools that will be built from the $810 million school construction bond issue approved by voters in October. It’s a response to commissioners who have said they want proof that schools are being built in the most cost-effective way possible before they turn over money financed by the bonds.

“The county commissioners and the school board want the same thing,” said school board member Kevin Hill. “We both want to save taxpayers money.”

The Republican-led commissioners have been feuding with the school board since Democrats retook that panel’s majority in 2011. The two sides temporarily put aside their differences to get the school bonds passed. But once that took place, the fighting resumed.

The latest skirmish emerged last week after commissioners rejected giving $3 million to design four new schools. Commissioners cited how the school system wants to use new school designs instead of reusing past designs.

“We seem to be paying too much for designs in my opinion,” Commissioner Paul Coble said at last week’s meeting.

Hill, the chairman of the school board’s facilities committee, said he invited commissioners to attend Wednesday’s meeting to hear about the school district’s use of design prototypes and why new designs were sought.

Semantics or substantive

No commissioners were present. Hill said Coble and Commissioner Betty Lou Ward told him they had scheduling conflicts.

“Part of the question is are we dealing with semantics?” asked school board member Bill Fletcher. “Or are we dealing with substantive concerns about saving the taxpayers money?”

The leaders of both boards will meet Friday to try to set up a joint meeting of the full boards. Commissioners’ Chairman Phil Matthews, who said he had a scheduling conflict Wednesday, said commissioners hope to resolve the issue as soon as possible.

On Wednesday, Joe Desormeaux, the district’s assistant superintendent for facilities, said the school system has been using prototypes since 1975. He said the reuse has saved taxpayers millions of dollars over the years.

But as a cost-cutting measure for the new bond program, Desormeaux said officials reduced the budgets for projects by 8 percent to 10 percent.

Seeking new designs

As a result, Desormeaux said school system officials decided to look for new designs that would work with the smaller budgets. The result is a new set of designs that have been used in other school systems but not in Wake before.

Desormeaux conceded that the new designs, costing as much as $2.2 million for a high school, are more expensive than if officials had reused a prototype. But he said the new designs mean they expect to build schools at a lower overall cost – as much as $3.7 million less on a new high school.

“Our community should take comfort in knowing that from the very beginning of the development of the (new school construction program), this has been the strategy to, as best we can, drive our costs down – even if it means using a design we haven’t seen in Wake County previously,” Fletcher said.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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