Monday, March 4, 2024

2024 school bond on the table, NHCS and county have different outlooks on issue

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Residents of New Hanover County may be asked to consider more than candidates ahead of the 2024 election; the school board is set to begin considerations of a bond to cover several capital projects to accommodate growth and update infrastructure. 

READ MORE: Study calls for new schools, redistricting to reduce NHCS overcrowding

ALSO: County prepared to provide $9 million more to NHCS to cover additional students, Title IX issues

Though the school bond topic has popped up during school board meetings a few times this year, board members and county commissioners have started serious conversations on the topic in recent weeks. 

However, the two have differing views on growth projections and the need for more capacity that could influence what projects make it into the bond, if it’s approved at all. 

At the New Hanover County commissioners meeting on Nov. 20, County Manager Chris Coudriet informed commissioners he and his staff met with Superintendent Charles Foust and NHCS staff to discuss capital needs. 

“[Foust] intimated that it is likely the school board would come forward with a bond request probably for 2024,” Coudriet said. “[NHCS] understand a primary ballot question is not attainable, it could perhaps be put in for the general election.” 

As the discussion is in early stages, no amount has been determined yet, nor has a finalized list of projects been put forth. Coudriet noted at the meeting that some projects mentioned have been consistent capital requests for several years. The county manager named four: a tear-down and rebuild of both Pine Valley Elementary School and Mary C. Williams, along with a new elementary school in the Riverlights community. 

All three were identified in the state-required Facility Needs Assessment but were put on hold after the district was denied a state lottery grant in May 2022. Cost estimates show Riverlights and Pine Valley at $44 million, double from a year earlier, and Mary C. Williams was $16 million, though at the time only a renovation was planned.

Coudriet also noted a probable bond project would be New Hanover High School renovations, not to build more capacity, but completing “what has largely been deferred maintenance on the school.”

The condition of New Hanover High School prompted school board member Hugh McManus to stress the need for a bond at the Nov. 6 board meeting.

“I think we need to discuss pushing our local government to have a bond referendum as soon as possible in 2024 to redo New Hanover High School,” McManus said. 

He reported meeting with the principal and several students at the high school a few days prior to the meeting; they expressed the need for improvements at the 101-year-old school.

“The focus point: the facilities at New Hanover High School are not even in the same ballpark, parking lot, county or state compared to some of the newer high schools, for instance, well all of them, but particularly Ashley,” McManus said at the November meeting. 

Last year, a New Hanover High School parent, Katrina Aldrich, made the same argument in a civil rights complaint to the U.S. Department of Education, prompting an investigation. With one student at Hoggard High School and two others at NHHS, which has a majority Black Hispanic population, Aldrich claimed there was a stark difference in facility quality. 

In NHCS’ 2014 school bond — the last one issued for $160 million — Hoggard and Laney high schools received new gymnasiums for $10.6 million and $16.4 million, respectively. NHHS received $5.5 million in renovations to the George West Building C to “create an appropriate learning environment.” 

NHHS’ Brogden Hall gymnasium — closed in 2021 for new flooring after it was revealed the building was sinking —  also needs roof repairs. Without additional appropriations from the county this fiscal year, those improvements would not have been funded with NHCS’ regular capital allotment. 

A 2024 general obligation bond would require the county’s approval, as it would be responsible for issuing debt and levying the appropriate taxes to pay for a bond. 

“I don’t think it’s an unrealistic request for a school bond,” Commissioner Rob Zapple said at the Nov. 20 meeting. “$180 million-plus just in the projects you’ve outlined there that have been on the books for a while.”

As of Nov. 17, the county has “limited” debt capacity of $86 million, according to county manager Coudriet, though he said that number was expected to increase next fiscal year. 

At the Nov. 20 meeting, Commissioner Jonathan Barfield asked if the capacity captured planned projects, such as the Noble Middle expansion or new fire station, along with Cape Fear Community College’s needs. Coudriet said the $86 million did reflect upcoming projects and that CFCC has not led him to believe any projects other than ongoing operations and maintenance are “pressing or forthcoming.” 

Still, Coudriet noted the county had other obligations to attend with its debt issuance. 

“Also, not kind of relitigating old history, but even to put the ballot on the agenda would require approval from the Local Government Commission,” he said. 

New Hanover County most recently struggled to get approval for Project Grace, a combined library and museum in downtown Wilmington, from State Treasurer Dale Folwell who pushed for the county to use cash on hand rather than issuing debt. The county has said it will not raise taxes to fund the process; the development was approved Oct. 3 after Folwell refused to put it on the agenda for a vote in September

The main issue for the county, however, is deciding if new capacity is even needed. 

“We do not need to be making bond and building-of-school decisions for today that may be different than the ones we’ll have in 10 years,” Commissioner Dane Scalise said at the Nov. 20 meeting.

The county manager explained county staff’s growth projections concluded elementary- and middle-school enrollment has declined to pre-2014 levels and high schools have barely increased. Coudriet said projections are expected to level out over the next decade. This could come from several causes — more parents choosing charter or private schools, state birth rates in decline, and more retirees moving to the area than families with school-aged children.

2023’s enrollment numbers follow that trend, according to Coudriet, who said the tallied student number came in under budgeted projections, though didn’t report the final total. 

Yet, overcrowding is taking place in some schools due to the disparity of concentrations across the district. A 10-year facility utilization study completed this year by Cropper/McKibben found the most congested schools include Bellamy Elementary (134% capacity), Masonboro Elementary (126%), Hoggard High (124%), Ogden Elementary (118%) and Roland-Grise Middle (118%). Blair and Castle Hayne elementaries are expected to join them in the next three years. 

In the downtown vicinity, the speciality schools — Rachel Freeman School of Engineering and Snipes Academy of Arts and Design — are expected to remain at healthy capacity throughout the next 10 years. New Hanover High School is expected to drop below 86%, or healthy capacity, beginning in 2026.

Coudriet said at the meeting his intention was not to diminish the real tension and pressure point in certain school systems, but noted efficient use of existing facilities had to be part of any bond discussion.

“My professional recommendation to the board in terms of stewardship, [current buildings] should be used effectively well and efficiently before there is a campaign to build new school capacity that is not necessarily needed,” Coudriet said. “Long-term growth projections do have fewer students in our elementary, middle and high schools going forward as opposed to where we are today.”

However, the Cropper/McKibben study states new builds are needed now to relieve current overcrowding and its capital recommendations are not aimed at accommodating future growth. Its suggestions include building a new elementary school in the Silver Lake area, a new middle school on the SEA-Tech campus, and moving Laney High to the current Trask campus. Expansions are suggested at Aldermen, Masonboro and Porters Neck elementary schools.

School board member Stephanie Walker — the only board member to respond to by Port City Daily for an interview — said the county and district differing views on growth projections show how hard it is to see into the future. 

“We can’t just assume it’s just retirees that are going to move here because even if, say, they have a grandparent that moves down here, a lot of the times the families follow,” Walker said. 

Without new schools, NHCS would most likely need to undergo a redistricting process to divert more students to under-capacity schools. As Commissioner Barfield noted at the Nov. 20 meeting, that would be a tough sale. 

“I will say that if we are a board that will quiver under pressure, this conversation will make you quiver under pressure,” Barfield said. “When we talk about changing the makeup of our capacity, which really means bussing kids to other schools, it’s a conversation not for the weak of heart because you’re going to have parents that will be vehemently upset and challenge you about moving their kids anywhere outside of their neighborhood school. And that conversation is really about neighborhood schools and so for those new on the board, I would tell you to put your pressure jackets on, you’re going to feel some pressure.”

In 2010, NHCS adopted a neighborhood schools model for elementary and middle schools, meaning a student would be assigned to the school closest to them. The benefits include less travel time to school and the expectation that communities would rally around their neighborhood school to support its success. 

However, data shows the model further divided schools by race due to the hyper segregation already present in New Hanover County housing patterns due to mid-century redlining and discrimination. 

Freeman and Snipes, along with D.C. Virgo, were made into magnet schools under the impression white parents would send their students there. Today, the schools have majority Black populations and are deemed low-performing by the state, though they remain under capacity. 

Walker said no matter how complicated it is, redistricting will need to be part of the conversation as it moves forward. An opponent of the neighborhood schools model, Walker said it unraveled the county’s integration efforts and resegregated schools. 

Monday, Walker said an evaluation of effective space utilization will ultimately lead to redistricting, though she understands how detrimental it can be for families that may have chosen a particular area to live in based on the local school.

“Until I have more of these discussions that we’re going to have in the next month or two months, I can’t really say that [the bond] will fail or not,” Walker said. 

According to Coudriet, the latest a bond referendum could be added to the 2024 general election ballot would be summer.

At the NHCS finance committee meeting on Dec. 4, funding capital projects is top of the list, according to committee chair Pat Bradford at the Nov. 6 meeting. Walker said several board members have set up individual meetings with commissioners to discuss a bond, which will culminate in a joint meeting in January or February.


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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