Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Pender County Schools requests $178M bond referendum on November ballot

To address the county’s growing population and overcrowding of schools, the Pender County Board of Education is requesting the addition of a $177 million bond to cover seven capital projects. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

PENDER COUNTY — Pender County Schools is proposing a $177.8-million school bond referendum to address critical capital needs. If approved by county commissioners, the referendum could go on the ballot for the voters to decide this November.

The school system, located in one of the fastest-growing counties ranked fifth largest in the state, is currently in excess of 10,000 students. 

PCS presented a resolution to the county commissioners Monday requesting the bond, but a representative from the school system was not present. While commissioners George Brown and David Williams expressed frustration and the need for the administration to make its request publicly, chair David Piepmeyer reminded everyone the process needs to move quickly.

In a statement Thursday PCS stated: “The acknowledged representation at the meeting was a misunderstanding by Superintendent Dr. Steven Hill that the meeting in question wasn’t for a public presentation, rather for the commissioners to receive written documentation for review (following the two-week information request period prior to public meetings).”

The board became aware of the request in the March 4 budget session. “It’s a pretty lengthy process and has many steps that have to be done in a certain order and sequence in order to get everything in place,” Piepmeyer said Monday.

The proposed referendum covers seven projects across the county, with two new schools, a new eight-bay maintenance garage, renovations to three schools and improvements to the central services building.

To accommodate the current influx of students, as well as future families moving to the area, school leaders are proposing the construction of a 1,200-student middle school for $67.7 million and an 800-student K-5 elementary school for $43.9 million.

“There has been ongoing research and development to strategically place completely new construction of schools between Rocky Point and the Hampstead area in an effort to meet the highest levels of growth most efficiently,” PCS spokesperson Bob Fankboner wrote in an email.

At last month’s board of education meeting, the board approved a request for qualifications drafted by board attorney Brandon McPherson. Superintendent Hill said school administration is working ahead to provide résumés for architects for the K-8 school — its top priority.

“So you have them up front for when the time comes to start construction,” Hill told board members.

The goal is to begin construction in 2023, if the county finds property suitable. The issue with recent searches is many of the considered areas would have to undergo wetlands mitigation prior to breaking ground; it could possibly add up to two years to the timeline.

For roughly two years PCS has worked closely with local government to study school overpopulation, according to PCS. Out of PCS’ 19 schools, seven are considered at capacity, according to a March 1 board presentation. The district overall is at 91% capacity.

During a special-called meeting Feb. 25, Dr. Hill asked board members to rank a list of seven projects, not including renovations to Topsail Middle School or the proposed schools. Those two were already considered non-negotiable priorities to handle the student overflow.

At the time, board members made it clear they wanted to prioritize additional classroom space to accommodate more students, especially in the areas such as Rocky Point and Penderlea experiencing significant growth.

The final list of projects being proposed for the bond (aside from new schools), include:

  • Topsail Middle School: renovation to allow the overflow from Topsail High and create a freshman academy, or 9th-grade classrooms — $22.6 million
  • Rocky Point Elementary School: an expansion to include 116 seats — $1.2 million
  • Burgaw Middle School: renovation to the cafeteria — $4.3 million
  • Central services building renovation — $21 million
  • Eight-bay maintenance building — $17 million

Bond consultant and architect Gary Kubler told the board in February it would be difficult to work all capital projects simultaneously. He said not only from a funding standpoint but also the stress it would put on the school system to manage.

He suggested renovations at Topsail Middle School to start after the new K-8 school campus was built to allow current TMS students to move into the new facility while TMS undergoes repairs.

The last time Pender County Schools passed a bond was for $75 million in 2014. At that time, seven schools were considered at or above capacity due to population growth. With the previous bond, PCS renovated Penderlea’s K-8 school and added a 48,000-square-foot building for $22 million. It also built a K-8 school in Surf City, split into separate elementary and middle buildings. That project cost upward of $38 million — triple the price of what it’s costing today to build a K-8 school.

Commissioner chair David Piepmeyer said now that PCS has arrived on a request number for the bond, the county will analyze the impact to taxpayers. Additional expenses will also be incurred once the schools are built, for staffing, maintenance and utility needs.

According to outgoing county manager Chad McEwen, there will be multiple public hearings prior to the fall for residents to learn more about the bond’s impact and to express their opinions.

“You know taxes are going up,” commissioner Fred McCoy said Monday. “[Money] doesn’t come out of the sky somewhere.”

Tips or comments? Email amy@localdailymedia.com.

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