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Saturday, May 25, 2024

Pender school bond ‘hits a snag,’ timeline delayed at least a year

Pender County Schools will face a delay in the construction timeline of bond projects. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

PENDER COUNTY — Despite 54% of Pender County voters approving a bond to build more schools in its overcrowded district, there has been a hold-up in securing property — a needed step to get the ball rolling on new school construction.  

The $178-million school bond passed in November; however, the school board announced Tuesday evening there is a delay in the original proposed timeline. The county owns no viable land to build a new K-8 school on.

READ MORE: Pender voters says yes to bond that will build new schools, GOP stays in power

Construction was scheduled to begin in the summer of 2023. The design phase was intended to start immediately after the vote. The delay is pushing back the opening of the new school from August 2025 to August 2026, according to school board member Brad George.

“The bond has hit a snag,” George said at the meeting. He added a discussion item to the end of the agenda Tuesday evening, specifically to address the issue.

Schools continue to be packed in the county at a rate of nearly 400 more students than the district is suited for.

“That’s a whole year worth of growth back into the schools,” George added. 

The 20 or so individuals in the audience at the meeting groaned in response.

George — heavily leading the discussion — proceeded to blame county commissioners for the delay, not finalizing negotiations to acquire land for the school.

Commissioner chair Jackie Newton said the board is “ready, willing and able” to move forward and build schools.

“That’s our priority one,” Newton said. “As far as I know, for both boards.”

The bond process started in December 2021. Projects were identified by school administration and downsized in February from $272 million to $178 million.

During Tuesday’s meeting, George rattled off a timeline of events from January last year until the board of education approved a resolution for the bond in May. He noted there was ample time for all board members to provide feedback on needed projects. 

Commissioners gave the greenlight in August to include the referendum on the November ballot.

On Jan. 3, commissioners will certify the bond election results — the final formal step needed before the county receives Local Government Commission approval. 

Pender County manager David Andrews said it is not necessarily unusual that commissioners have held two meetings since the bond was approved and not completed that process.

“It’s just a matter of formally doing it,” he said.

A spokesperson for the N.C. State Treasurer’s Office confirmed there is no statutory deadline for certifying the bond.

The commissioners and school board have been actively searching for an appropriate plot for the new school for more than two years.

“The longer this drags out and falls behind schedule the cost will continue to increase,” George told PCD. “The amount of the bond and the projects were based on the submitted project schedule.”

He said he hoped the search would have wrapped by now.

Pender County purchased a 182-acre property along U.S. 17 specifically for the school system earlier in the year, but the board of education indicated it might not be suitable for a new school.

As a result, Pender County utilities director Kenny Keel asked in September to use the property for the construction of its proposed reverse osmosis plant, to which the commissioners denied.

During the same September commissioners meeting, George said he agreed the land wasn’t desirable due to the wetlands that would need remediation — again causing more delays. Yet he noted it was the only available location for the school currently.

“If that’s the only option we have, then give it to us and let’s start designing,” he told PCD. “A school will fit on it according to the overlays. It just has to be laid out in a way to minimize the impact on the wetlands.”

Newton confirmed to PCD the county has been dedicated to “pursuing partnerships to facilitate land transactions” and is “pretty close” to finalizing an acquisition. 

The commissioners are holding a special-called board meeting Friday at 10 a.m. and one of the two listed agenda items is land acquisition, to be discussed in closed session. Andrews could not confirm whether it was in reference to the property needed for the new school.

He did say confidently the property would be secured within three to four months.

“Going forward, with new leadership, my anticipation is that both boards will be communicating more closely as we proceed in our building programs,” Newton told PCD.

At Tuesday’s meeting, members Ken Smith and Beth Burns were sworn in for another term and Brent Springer joined the dais in Cindy Fontana’s place. Smith was named the new chair and Don Hall was appointed vice chair.

The Pender County School Board discussed the school bond at Tuesday’s meeting, after swearing in returning members Ken Smith and Beth Burns, along with new member Brent Springer. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

How does the bond process work?

The county commissioners and school board have a joint meeting scheduled for January to discuss how to proceed with the bond process.

“After the first of the year, we will be aggressively pursuing getting our joint priorities in place so we can move forward as aggressively as possible,” Newton said.

The commissioners will set the bond sell schedule, according to George, based on when funds need to be drawn. Since the district “is in a holding pattern,” no bonds will be sold yet.

Newton said when she came on the board of commissioners in 2016, the $75-million bond approved in 2014 had already gone through proper procedures.

“I can’t speak to the process,” she said. “All I know is, we are going forward as quickly as possible and anything on our end that has to be done will be done.”

According to N.C. general statute, the entirety of the bonds must be issued (assigned to a specific project) within seven years after voted on; an extension to 10 can be authorized by the LGC by request.

Andrews explained the joint meeting with the two boards will help solidify the timeline and order in which the amount of bonds are sold.

“Once we identify a project, we’ll go out and sell those bonds for however much, based on construction bids for the total amount,” he explained.

After the bonds are issued, the district has three years to spend the money. The LGC must also approve each individual bond sale.

“You don’t want to go out and sell $178 million because you’ll start incurring interest,” Andrews said. 

The bond is meant to cover the following capital needs projects:

  • $111.6 million new elementary and middle school
  • $22.6 million Topsail Middle School renovation
  • $1.2 million Rocky Point Elementary School addition
  • $4.3 million Burgaw Middle School cafeteria rebuild
  • $21 million construction of a new central services building
  • $17 million construction of a new eight-bay maintenance building

With the rising cost of construction, it’s unclear if the $178-million will cover everything on the list; estimates secured over the summer have likely risen due to inflation. George said it will likely result in overruns or be delayed to another bond attempt.

He also expressed at the meeting his belief that Pender County Schools needs a bond every two years to catch up with growth.

Regardless of how things proceed, the schools will likely have to redistrict, according to the school board. A new school will reallocate students to ease capacity issues, and if the build is delayed, the district might need a temporary fix to spread out attendance.

“That’s going to upset a whole lot of people, a whole lot of lives and livelihoods to change when you shuffle the whole county to accommodate these kids,” George said. “But we can’t keep packing them in.”

He said it could add an hour-plus bus ride for some kids if redistricting has to occur before a new school is built. To add more huts on campus would cost around $1 million each.

“It’s unfortunate,” he said. “Hopefully, we can get the ball rolling and get something moving so we don’t move farther and farther behind.”

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