Garner Cleveland Record

Wake County schools find building costs escalating

Higher than expected costs to build schools are forcing the Wake County school system to delay funding for projects, such as Vandora Springs Elementary, that were approved by voters in a 2013 referendum.

To cover $50 million in unexpected expenses and to keep other projects on schedule, school administrators recommended Tuesday moving two elementary school projects from construction to be funded by the 2013 school bonds.

The projects – a new elementary school in southwestern Wake and the major renovation of Vandora Springs Elementary School – would, instead, be included in a proposed bond issue school leaders hope to put on the ballot in 2016.

The bad news about the capital budget came the same day that the school board approved a $1.4 billion operating budget for the 2015-16 school year. The budget includes a request for a $48.3 million increase in local funding from the Wake County Board of Commissioners, with the majority of the increase going toward pay raises for all 18,000 school employees.

The school board had considered asking for an additional $5.8 million but did not change Superintendent Jim Merrill’s budget recommendation.

“We’re very much aware that we were near our limit,” school board Vice Chairman Tom Benton said in an interview.

The final decision on putting a school bond on the ballot rests with the commissioners, who are already expected to put a referendum on the 2016 ballot asking voters to support raising the sales tax rate to pay for a transit plan. School board member Bill Fletcher said both boards need to work together to get the various referendums passed.

“It’s going to require all of us to be collaborative and cooperative in terms of crafting a message that the community will embrace and recognize just what the infrastructure needs are for the community in multiple dimensions,” Fletcher said. “We can’t be a lone ranger. We’re part of a team.”

Voters approved an $810 million school construction bond issue in October 2013, paving the way for $990 million in projects. But since then, bids for projects have consistently come in over projections. For instance, bids that came in April for two new elementary schools of the same design were $830,000 apart.

Joe Desormeaux, assistant superintendent for facilities, said an additional $50 million is needed to address higher construction costs, which would come from taking current funding from the two elementary school projects. But Desormeaux said that if voters approve the bonds in 2016, the system can keep both the new southwestern Wake school and the Vandora Springs renovation on schedule for August 2018 completion.

The official votes on reallocating the money would come in June. With half the bids from the 2013 construction program not yet submitted, Desormeaux said, Wake will continue to assess whether other previously funded projects need to be moved to the 2016 bond issue.

The change in projects would mean the current building program would include 15 new schools and completion of five major renovations instead of 16 new schools and six major renovations.

As part of the work of developing the next construction program, Desormeaux will appear before a school board committee next week to present a list of major renovations that could be included in the next bond issue.

Hui: 919-829-4534; Twitter: @nckhui

School board approves makeup days

▪ In other action Tuesday, the Wake County school board approved a makeup day plan for the 2015-16 school year that is supposed to make the scheduling of makeup days clearer for traditional-calendar families.

Wake will list every day that could be used and the order in which they’d be used. This comes after parents complained about the way the district kept changing plans in response to schools being closed eight days this past winter.

Wake would first use teacher workdays, then forgive up to three snow days, change early release days to full days, hold classes on a Saturday, cut into spring break and extend the school year.

▪ The school board also gave preliminary approval Tuesday to a policy that regulates the ways live animals can be brought to schools as classroom pets and for instructional purposes.

The policy would require investigating known student and staff allergies and health issues that would be aggravated by having the animal in class and giving parents the opportunity to object or opt out.