Monday, April 15, 2024

School committee prioritizes New Hanover High repairs regardless of county funding

New Hanover High School’s structural repairs is a priority in the district’s capital outlay budget this year. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — A 103-year-old school is getting some preferential treatment when it comes to this year’s New Hanover County Schools capital outlay budget plan.

READ MORE: NHC school board looks at ‘worst case scenario’ budget, tacks $10 million more onto shortfall

On Thursday, the NHCS capital outlay committee was presented with over $40 million in repair and renovation requests, ranked by priority. However, the district has a backlog of repairs it has already spent money on that it hopes to complete this budget cycle, including almost $3.5 million dedicated to New Hanover High School. 

Around $2 million of those funds will go toward structural repairs. Assistant Superintendent of Facilities Eddie Anderson said the district was given $1 million last year for exterior repairs, mainly masonry and waterproofing. 

“We’re in worse shape than we thought,” Anderson said at the Wednesday meeting, indicating more funding will be needed. 

Crews are still reviewing the deterioration, so necessary work and cost estimates are tentative, but the facilities team estimates the entire terracotta layer will need to be removed and a large portion of the brick will need replacing. The team will also need to set micropiles at the front of the building to stabilize its foundation. 

The crews have already removed sheet rock from the interior to assess the situation, relocating three classrooms on the west side of the building. In this budget cycle, the district plans to include repairs to the west side and the micropiles, each costing $1 million. 

The $1 million east side repairs, in a less critical state, will be deferred to next year to spread out costs and minimize classroom disruption.

The other $1.5 million included in this year’s capital outlay will go toward the construction of NHHS’ culinary kitchen, a project designed as part of last year’s budget. The classroom requires utility upgrades, ventilation, fire protection and increased electrical capacity, along with a grease trap. 

The project is one of seven rolling over from the last budget cycle, when the New Hanover County Commissioners provided almost $10 million in one-time funding on top of its traditional allocation, around $3.8 million according to the district.

During conversations with county staff, it was determined the county would cover 60% of those costs in the first year, following up with the 40% at a later date. The school board has yet to send its budget request to the commissioners, who have not committed to distributing additional funds this year.

The district is also grappling with a $20 million shortfall in its general fund due to an overspent fund balance, a lack of adequate state funding and expiring federal funds. 

“New Hanover has to be our top priority continuously, so hopefully the county commissioners realize that,” school board member Hugh McManus said at the meeting. 

However, NHC Chief Financial Officer Eric Credle told commissioners at their first workshop last week that it was going to be a tough budget season ahead. 

New Hanover High School has been mired by failing infrastructure for years, mainly in Brogden Hall, the school’s gymnasium where the floor was sinking. It was fixed in 2022, but that same year, up to $40 million worth of issues were identified throughout the high school and its gym that have yet to be addressed. 

The district’s 2014 bond addressed $5.7 million in repairs to the school to “create an appropriate learning environment,” while both Laney and Hoggard received new gyms, among other campus enhancements.

“I feel like the New Hanover community feels like we’re deserting them and that’s not true at all,” McManus said. “I’ve never heard a soul say they would not immensely support, so I think that needs to be loud and clear.”

However, the NHHS repairs are not the only costs continuing into this year; $1 million in security upgrades and a $500,000 facility needs assessment are in the works, along with $1.5 million dedicated to installing artificial turf at Laney High School’s sports stadium. Doing so will eliminate the cost of mowing and maintaining a natural field. 

Superintendent Charles Foust recommended the latter be deferred, in the case commissioners don’t come through with additional revenue, due to more pressing needs in the district. The district has already paid out $149,000 for the design, but deferring the remaining funding will not affect it. 

If the district does not get more than its usual $3.8 million, $2 million of that would go toward the NHHS structural repairs. 

“We’re committed to New Hanover,” Anderson said. 

However, other important repairs would be put on the backburner, including:

  • Panic controls ($50,000) that will allow the district to automatically suspend bell signals during a lockdown
  • Replacement of three underground storage tanks ($955,000) nearing their end of life, tile replacements at Myrtle Grove Middle ($350,000)
  • A new chiller at Holly Tree Elementary ($420,000)
  • Fire code upgrades at Gregory and Blair elementaries ($30,000),
  • Roof repairs across multiple campuses ($1 million).

The district also wants to place two additional portable trailers at Porters Neck Elementary, bringing the total to four, costing $550,000. 

Four schools — Sunset Park Elementary, Murray Middle, Ashley High, Masonboro Elementary — are in desperate need for intercom system upgrades. According to staff, they could not be fixed if they went down, leaving schools vulnerable and disconnected. Together, this would be around a $500,000 cost.

“We’re living on a wing and a prayer right now,” Foust said. 

Foust chastised staff for the lack of a long-term plan for addressing repairs when system warranties were up, which helped put the district “between a rock and a hard place.” 

“We have to forecast and they have the ability to forecast, it’s just that it’s a backlog right now,” he said. 

Anderson said the facility needs assessment will help address that shortcoming, but he also said he didn’t think the district ever received enough funding to cover all its needs. Board member Josie Barnhart agreed, saying the $3.8 million may need revisiting.

The district plans to present commissioners with around $13 million in requests, including the roll-over projects but minus the Laney turf. The budget must be submitted by May.


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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