Education

Wake County school board considers $2 billion building program

Apex High school principal Diann Kearney says that her school continues to have water and drainage problems due to clay soil and its several buildings sited on different elevations. The rebuilding of Apex High is recommended for inclusion in Wake County’s next school building program.
Apex High school principal Diann Kearney says that her school continues to have water and drainage problems due to clay soil and its several buildings sited on different elevations. The rebuilding of Apex High is recommended for inclusion in Wake County’s next school building program. hlynch@newsobserver.com

Wake County school board members are considering asking for $2 billion over the next seven years to pay for new schools, renovations and other projects for the state’s largest school system.

School administrators presented a board committee Wednesday with two scenarios, each costing $2 billion, for a building program that would cover 2017 to 2023. Both scenario one and scenario two would fund 14 new schools, 11 major school renovations and a variety of items, such as buying more new technology and sites for future schools.

Although $2 billion might sound like a large number, school board member Bill Fletcher said it would provide what’s needed to have a strong school system that helps the entire county. Wake estimates it will grow by 32,000 more students by 2025.

“It’s an average of around $300 million per year to keep up with the new seats and the building renovations and replacements that are necessary to serve the county,” said Fletcher, chairman of the board’s facilities committee. “We’ve worked to make a plan that’s within the county’s debt load and would maximize the value of the taxes our citizens pay.”

The school board is expected to officially ask the Wake County Board of Commissioners for the money for the building program by June 7.

Commissioners would not try to borrow the $2 billion all at once. They could over the next few years put multiple school bond referendums on the ballot for voter approval, or the county could borrow money without seeking voter approval.

The commissioners are considering waiting until 2018 to put a school bond referendum on the ballot. In that case, the county would borrow money for the school system to use for the next two years.

Many of the 10 new elementary schools, two middle schools and two high schools are near the current and future route of Interstate 540/N.C. 540, particularly in southwest Wake.

The schools proposed for renovations are spread around the county. They are Wiley, Stough, North Ridge, York and Conn elementary schools, and West Millbrook Middle in Raleigh; East Wake Middle near Knightdale; Vandora Springs Elementary in Garner; Apex High, Fuquay-Varina High and Wendell Elementary.

In most cases, students would need to relocate temporarily while their campuses are renovated.

For instance, students at Wiley Elementary near downtown Raleigh could move in 2018 to a former movie theater in Garner that now houses Garner High’s freshmen. Garner High won’t need the theater after its renovations are done in 2018.

School board members had few questions Wednesday about the projects. But they had queries about delaying timetables for completion of a new middle school near Alston Ridge Elementary in Cary and East Wake’s renovations.

School facilities staff had put the start of both projects after 2018 because county finance staff say only an additional $393 million could be provided over the next two years. Staff want to use that $393 million for other things, such as the renovation of Apex High and the construction of a new high school near Fuquay-Varina.

“We’re trying to work within a limit,” Fletcher said during the meeting.

But school board member Jim Martin said the board shouldn’t necessarily just stop at what they’re told are the funding limits.

“We’ve got to articulate the needs,” Martin said. “We can’t just say, ‘Hey, we’re going to squeeze it in to whatever the dollars are that somebody says are available.’ These are real needs.”

School board Chairman Tom Benton said that the district is in a situation where the needs are more than the finite resources available.

“We can do this project or this project,” Benton said. “The only way you get out of an ‘or’ is to increase money or find other creative ways to try to address it, and I don’t know of any creative ways.”

The administrative staff was asked to come back at Tuesday’s board meeting with a way to speed up completion of both middle school projects. The district may need to push back work on two new elementary schools, including Poole Road Elementary in Southeast Raleigh, to come up with the money.

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

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