LAURINBURG — In a meeting with the Scotland County Board of Commissioners on Monday for an in-depth look at proposed plans to close three schools and build a new one over the next four years, school board members said they will only move forward with new construction if it is feasible to pay for it without extra county funds.
“I hope you guys feel like we realize we bear some responsibility in trying to help you decrease that tax rate,” said school board member Jamie Sutherland. “The intent is to not come to you at all, and absolutely not go to the county to ask you guys for money.”
School maintenance director Roger Ammons presented a plan that involved moving Covington Street Elementary students to Sycamore Lane and moving Scotland Early College High from St. Andrews University to Covington Street in August 2017.
The reassignment of North Laurinburg Elementary students to Laurel Hill Elementary would follow in 2018, and a new elementary school would be built by 2020 to serve the students at South Scotland and I.E. Johnson elementary schools.
The plan would mean the closure of the South Scotland, North Laurinburg, and I.E. Johnson campuses, and the addition of around 15 classrooms each at Sycamore Lane and Laurel Hill. Ultimately, Sycamore Lane, Laurel Hill, and the new school would serve more than 800 students each. Wagram Elementary would not be affected, remaining around 500 students.
The proposed size of the new elementary schools gave commissioners Whit Gibson and Carol McCall pause.
“Bigger schools may be the new norm, but for many of us, I would be looking to put my child in a school that was small,” said McCall. “Is this going to be creating a distinction between three schools that are big and one that is a more traditional size for an elementary school?”
Ammons said that most new elementary schools in North Carolina are designed for more than 800 students, partly due to economies of scale keeping down cost per student in larger schools.
Superintendent Ron Hargrave pointed out that, when the Washington Park and Pate-Gardner elementary schools were combined at Sycamore Lane, parents generally did not shy away from sending their children to a larger school.
“I think that’s in part due to the board’s commitment to ensure that class sizes stay at a very small number,” said Hargrave. “Just because we’re increasing the student population, you immediately think that class sizes are going to be huge. But we’ve kept those at a minimum and I think, even though there are more students in the building, it has enabled the school to feel like it is still a small school.”
Both boards saw estimates from Pinnacle Architecture of Matthews and SfL+a Architects of Fayetteville, which quoted a total cost of $36.8 million and $39.9 million, respectively.
The commissioners and school board discussed financing options, which include securing bonds through either the county commissioners or public referendum, USDA Rural Improvement Program loans, or a public-private partnership in which the school system could have a new school built to its specifications and then effectively lease it from the developer.
“First of all, I think the vision is great and I think we need to do it, but will you be coming to us asking for more money?” asked commissioner John Alford, adding that the county would be hard pressed to raise its tax rate beyond the current $1.03.
At the completion of the proposed new school’s construction in 2020, Sutherland pointed out, current school system general obligation debt and debt incurred expanding Wagram Elementary is expected to be fully paid. The lottery and sales tax funds, currently about $1.8 million per year, being used to service those debts are earmarked by state law for school capital use.
School finance officer Jay Toland also compared the savings realized in each stage of consolidation — cutting costs primarily by reducing staff through attrition as well as in utilities and transportation — with the anticipated annual payment. Using Pinnacle’s estimate, the savings exceed the annual cost.
“I think, with this plan and these savings, we’ve sat and talked about these for days and I think we feel really good about them,” Toland said. “However, we can’t tell what happens in the future.”
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169.