NEW HANOVER COUNTY – New Hanover County Schools is planning its 26th elementary school in the Riverlights community, as well as a replacement building for Pine Valley and extensive renovations to Mary C. Williams.
Both the New Hanover County Board of Education and Board of Commissioners voted Wednesday to allocate more than $880,000 for initial design work on the projects.
Commissioner Jonathan Barfield was the lone “no” between the two boards. He indicated a preference to delay the vote until the regular commissioners’ meeting on Monday.
The meeting was the first time in years the two governmental bodies had joined at the same table. Its purpose was to outline school system funding priorities. New Hanover County allocates nearly a third of its budget each year to public schools. This fiscal year the schools are receiving $112 million.
With the leftover money from a 2014 bond, New Hanover County Schools is prioritizing the design of the long-planned Riverlights Elementary School on a site adjacent to Arrowhead Park, near River Road.
In 2017 the commissioners approved a resolution recognizing the need for a new school within Riverlights. The developer, Newland Communities, agreed to reserve land for the project.
Workers are already building roads, water and sewer infrastructure on the 15-acre tract, according to Eddie Anderson, NHCS assistant superintendent of operations. Preliminary estimates place the cost of a new school at $27 million.
Conceptual designs of the site include two playgrounds, a multi-purpose field, a stormwater pond and a 125-space parking lot. The proposed building would span three stories and 60,000 square feet.
NHCS is also planning a replacement building for Pine Valley Elementary, another top priority, $27-million estimated project. The future building would be erected beside the existing school. Once students move into the new facility, work would commence to tear down the old school and convert the land into parking and playfields.
The new Riverlights and Pine Valley elementary schools are expected to open in August 2025, if funded in time.
Once Riverlights is operating, students from Mary C. Williams Elementary would temporarily move there for classes while Williams undergoes an estimated $7-million renovation. NHCS is considering a pre-K expansion and an English-as-a-second-language welcome office as part of the plans.
School board chair Stefanie Adams said the Latino Alliance requested a newcomers center in the area.
“Because we do have so many new residents coming to New Hanover County and many of them are non-English speakers,” Adams said. “This would be an opportunity to have everything under one roof and to standardize the process and simplify it for these families that are coming in.”
Work is expected to be completed at Williams by August 2026.
Next fiscal year, NHCS expects to present “more realistic” project costs to proceed with construction.
The projects are part of a $442-million facility needs survey, which outlines necessities to accommodate growth.
Over the next decade, the state projects NHCS’ enrollment will increase by almost 5.5%. Elementary schools are expected to grow at the greatest rates.
“I haven’t seen that in a long time,” Anderson said. “We’ve been relatively flat . . . there was a time there when we actually had a decline in enrollment.”
Currently, schools are overcapacity. If all needs listed in the survey are addressed within the next 10 years, NHCS would have more than a sufficient amount of space.
By law, local school systems are required to update a facility needs survey every five years. The survey informs decisions on new construction projects based on enrollment projections, the condition of existing facilities and educational adequacy.
The latest survey was completed in 2015 and pinpointed $406 million worth of needs.
In addition to the elementary projects, NHCS is aiming to enhance its safety and security at all schools in the next 10 years.
NHCS plans for all visitors to eventually undergo a “two-step verification process” when arriving on campuses. The guest would speak with a receptionist through an intercom before the door unlocks. Then they would move into a second, secure room before staff allows the individual into the front office.
“That way, they can talk to you further, but more importantly, they can visually see you and see your demeanor,” Anderson said.
Wednesday’s joint meeting was originally scheduled for January but was postponed by the commissioner chair after the school board delayed its transition into Plan A for elementary schools. The meeting was reset following the decision to finally allow elementary students to resume their normal five-day schedule, which started Monday, Mar. 8.
Just hours before the rescheduled meeting, Gov. Roy Cooper announced middle and high schools could reopen soon, pending a bill that is under review in the N.C. General Assembly.
The matter was not discussed.
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