Saturday, January 28, 2023

‘Building to capacity:’ Pender commissioners, BOE talk needs as they close in on land purchase

The Pender County school board and commissioners took now action during the meeting, only discussed the bond projects. Pictured left to right are school board chair Ken Smith, commissioners chair Jackie Newton and county manager Dave Andrews.

BURGAW — Pender County’s popularity is pushing school capacity to the limit with no end in sight.

The district is trying to build a new K-8 school as the flagship project of a $178 million bond issue voters signed off on in November and county commissioners are in the midst of a land acquisition. But local officials raised concerns Monday that wouldn’t be enough.

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

The county school board and commissioners met in a joint meeting to discuss the impending bond projects amid public back-and-forth.

The K-8 will host 2,000 new students; however, the district is already reaching capacity and many of its schools are overpopulated, especially along U.S. Highway 17. 

The rapid growth is recent. The district’s average daily membership, the metric the state uses to calculate enrollment, was 8,146 students in 2008. It grew steadily over the years until 2020, when enrollment started a steep climb. 

The enrollment at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year was 9,539, a decline from the previous year amid the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2021, the district recorded 10,104 students; a year later it had about 10,800 students. 

As of Tuesday, the district reported 10,988 students and is at more than 90% capacity.

School board member Brad George reiterated at the meeting a comment he made in December —the board will need a bond issue every two years to keep up with the growth rate. Commissioner Jimmy Tate said he is concerned the schools are “building at capacity” and called on his own experience as a college president.

“When we built a building, we were trying to build for 10 years out, at least, for that capacity,” Tate said. “And so, you go into Surf City Elementary School and you go in and visit a fifth-grade classroom, there’s a tremendous amount of students. I hear from parents all the time. It’s real, really real, and we’ve got to do something.”

Surf City Elementary has 818 students, but its maximum capacity is 745.

Since the potential for a bond was brought forth last spring, finding land to add another school has been a hot topic among county leaders. Pender’s attorney Trey Thurman said Monday the county is going back and forth with a developer on a parcel of land at the moment.

This came after county manager Dave Andrews told Port City Daily in December the county expected to have a site within three months and commissioners have discussed a potential land acquisition in closed sessions as of late. 

Chair Jackie Newton told Port City Daily the county has already acquired some land and is in the process of acquiring more sufficient for the projects described in the bond issue.

Newton suggested the county or school board look into hiring an outside consultant to oversee large building projects rather than the construction manager at-risk because it can save millions.

“It’s a higher price tag when you use a [construction manager at -isk] because they assume the risk,” Newton said.

At one point, newly elected commissioner Jerry Groves questioned the costs associated with the construction and pushed for cost-saving measures. He questioned if the schools use template designs to save on costs (they do), said site engineering is “not rocket science,” and at one point began listing price increases on commodities like gasoline and eggs.

“This is what we’re against,” Groves said.

BOE Chair Ken Smith responded the schools are not the reason prices are increasing.

“I know that everyone’s suffering, we’re all doing our part, but our children, if we’re not preparing right now to get these kids in schools, big enough schools, we’re going to be back here again and it’s not going to be as nice a meeting,” Smith said.

Part of the school-building challenge is funding, but appropriate sites are hard to come by in Pender as well. Wetlands snake through the county and, while housing developments can be planned around parcels with patches of wetland, contiguous pieces of good land that can handle large facilities are scarce.

“If I’m doing a development, I can cluster my homes on the uplands and then spread it out,” Thurman. “That doesn’t really work for a school. You can’t have three classrooms here, go four miles down the road and have another three.”

Toward the end of the discussion, Newton asked if there is anything else the commissioners could do to help. BOE member Brent Springer joked they can “dewater” the land.

Newton suggested the school board and the commissioners inventory the land they own to see if they can trade to accommodate future projects.

No actions were taken during the meeting.


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