NEW HANOVER COUNTY — As inflation and material shortages persist, three of New Hanover County Schools’ top-priority construction projects have nearly doubled in costs since initial estimates were presented a year ago.
In March 2021, the school district’s facilities team received the go-ahead from officials to pursue a new K-5 school in the Riverlights community, a replacement building for Pine Valley Elementary, and renovations to convert Mary C. Williams Elementary into a pre-K center. More than $880,000 was allocated for design work to kick off the projects.
At the time, RiverLights and Pine Valley both were projected to be more than $27 million, with Pine Valley requiring an additional $700,000 for the demolition of the existing building. The price tag to renovate Mary C. Williams was $7.7 million.
Nearly a year later, completing RiverLights is estimated to cost $43.4 million, and the Pine Valley project is expected to come in at $44.3 million, a 60% increase in price. Renovations to Mary C. Williams will likely require at least $16.1 million, a 108% rise.
During a presentation to county commissioners last week, NHCS assistant superintendent for operations Eddie Anderson said he did not believe the new estimates — obtained as part of the design process — were accurate at first.
“We had sticker shock,” Anderson said.
NHCS brought in a professional cost estimator and a local contractor who verified the numbers, and through conversations with the Department of Public Instruction and other districts, it concluded the escalations were consistent with school construction projects statewide.
The new costs of RiverLights and Pine Valley equate to about $400 per square foot, more than double the $180 per square foot NHCS has paid in the past for construction.
“What we’ve heard from every school district and DPI, if you’re budgeting less than $400 a square foot, you will not be in budget,” Anderson said.
The upsurge is attributed to global supply chain interruptions, material and labor shortages, and inflation — “the ripple effect of Covid,” NHCS construction director Leanne Lawrence called it. The facilities team does not foresee prices dropping back down, only leveling out, if anything.
“I kind of always compare it to gas prices. You know, gas prices go up, up, up, up, and then they come down a little,” Anderson said, “but they never get back to where they were, and I think construction costs are starting to level out. Hopefully, they’ll plateau a little bit. At some point, they may drop a little bit, but the days of $175-square-foot buildings are gone.”
NHCS is applying for grant money from the state’s Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund, a program through the North Carolina Education Lottery. The district estimates it could obtain up to $70.5 million in the state funds to cover the overarching $103-million quote for the three projects. Then, NHCS would only need to secure a $32.6-million local allotment, half of what it intended to spend on the projects originally. NHCS is also tapping into $676,918 leftover from the 2014 Bond.
“I think it’s a good possibility and certainly, I think, worth pursuing,” Anderson told commissioners, who urged him to move forward on the application.
The tentative timeline for Pine Valley and RiverLights is to finalize designs by May 2023, construct the buildings between August 2023 and March 2025, and open the doors to each by August 2025.
Once RiverLights opens, Mary C. Williams’ student body will relocate to the nearby school. Thereafter construction would commence immediately to renovate Mary C. Williams’ buildings, with designs ready to go. Ground would break in June 2026 for the facility to open by August of that year.
Both the Riverlights and Pine Valley buildings were schematically designed with an emphasis on outdoor classrooms and collaborative, adaptable learning environments.
During construction, a barrier will divide Pine Valley’s lot between the existing school and work zone, while crews erect the new 92,380-square-foot building next door. Over summer break, the old building will be razed.
The cleared land will be used for an event lawn, playgrounds, the new parking lot and an ability course. The designs also include the recreation of a story garden, a beloved amenity of the existing school, and expanded space for support services, such as mental health and speech therapy. Anderson also indicated the school isn’t as secure as it could be — another reason not to delay construction or pursue renovations instead.
RiverLights is proposed for a site between River Road and Arrowhead Park, adjacent to the Arnold Road extension. Its outside designs feature a basketball court, a multi-purpose field, and art and music patios.
Kindergarten, first- and second-grade classroom wings are planned for the lower level, toward the rear of the building, with space for upper grades on the second story.
Ideally, NHCS’ goal for the Mary C. Williams renovation is to repurpose the building into 11 pre-K classrooms — two for exceptional children — as well as an early education central office. The design also dedicates two buildings for professional development initiatives and envisions a child-nutrition catering kitchen.
Built in 1975, Mary C. Williams is one of the district’s last remaining “pod schools,” with seven detached buildings connected by walkways. The site is in need of repairs as plumbing, mechanical and electrical systems are nearing the end of their useful lives.
The remodel of Mary C. Williams is in alignment with the commissioners’ priority to expand pre-K in New Hanover. It will serve as the county’s third early education site, filling a gap in the south.
That’s also a reason why the district is avoiding postponing RiverLights, despite the heightened price tag. NHCS’ student population has fallen by about 1,000 since pre-pandemic, signaling less urgency for a new building than before. But Anderson said without RiverLights, there is still a need to retain Mary C. Williams as an elementary school, limiting opportunities to offer pre-K.
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