Wake County school board reviews school renovation needs

Schools from across Wake County are competing for the limited number of dollars that will be available for renovation projects in the school district’s new building program.

On Wednesday, Wake County school facilities staff identified four unfinished renovations from the 2013 bond referendum, seven schools in line for renovations to their entire campus and 16 schools most in need of partial renovations. But it’s unlikely all those projects will be included in the next building program, especially when money also has to be set aside for building new schools to keep up with growth.

The challenge of determining which projects get priority now and which ones will wait hung over Wednesday’s meeting of the school board’s facilities committee. The school board is working on a new building program that will be presented to the Wake County Board of Commissioners this spring.

“Once we have our list, then it will be a give-and-take process with the county commission to say, ‘This is the funding level that we need,’ and the county commission will likely say, ‘Well we don’t have that much,’” said school board member Bill Fletcher, chair of the facilities committee. “Then we look at what can be funded for the next building cycle.”

Commissioners are weighing whether to put a school construction bond referendum on the November ballot or to borrow a smaller amount instead, without seeking voter approval.

The amount provided will determine how much the school system can spend on building and renovations during the next few years. On March 23, the facilities committee will get a list of new-school needs and updated student enrollment projections. But on Wednesday, the focus was on the need for renovations.

Fletcher said the board will have to include renovations for Apex High, Vandora Springs Elementary in Garner, Stough Elementary in Raleigh and East Wake Middle near Knightdale. Work at all four schools is partially funded from the $810 million bond issue approved by voters in 2013. Voters were told then the projects would be fully funded in the next program.

But after those four projects, it’s uncertain how many schools will get funded now for partial or complete renovations. Staff presented lists for both types of projects using ratings based on academic programs, student assignment capacity, building condition and health and safety.

Conn and North Ridge elementary schools in Raleigh and Fuquay-Varina High are tied at the top of the list as having the greatest need for a complete renovation. They’re followed by Wiley Elementary in Raleigh, Wendell Elementary, West Millbrook Middle in Raleigh and York Elementary in Raleigh.

These renovations can cost as much as building a new school. On Wednesday, the facilities recommended a design for renovating Fuquay-Varina High that could cost $70.8 million. The committee also backed a $23 million plan for rebuilding Stough Elementary.

In addition to the amount of money available, a major factor affecting the campus renovation schedule is the availability of “swing space.” Swing space describes the locations, either in trailers on campus or at an off-campus site, where students are taught while renovations are completed.

There’s no place identified yet where students at most of the seven schools would go while the renovations are done. Joe Desormeaux, Wake’s assistant superintendent for facilities, said if there’s no swing space available they’d move to the next school on the list that does have that capability.

“All of them need to be a high priority,” Desormeaux told the board. “It’s just that you’re at this point where unfortunately you’ve got to find some way to distinguish between them.”

Fletcher said they need to consider different options for swing space, including unused commercial buildings.

Betty Parker, Wake’s senior director of real estate services, said school staff has been meeting with different groups to talk about swing space options. She said it was one of the topics at a Tuesday meeting that school board members and staff had with Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane, City Manager Ruffin Hall and other city staff.

Among the partial renovations, staff ranked East Garner Middle, Fuquay-Varina Middle, Swift Creek Elementary, Briarcliff Elementary in Cary and Baucom Elementary in Apex as the top five.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui