NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Three major construction projects next in New Hanover County Schools pipeline are “on hold indefinitely,” the district says, after it was unsuccessful in obtaining a state lottery-funded grant.
Before building a new high school or taking on any other major capital projects, at the top of NHCS’ priority list is to erect a new elementary school in the Riverlights community, replace the Pine Valley Elementary building and renovate Mary C. Williams Elementary into a pre-K center. Each is highlighted in the Facility Needs Assessment, a state-required survey revised every five years. More than $880,000 was spent on designs for the projects.
However, in one year, the anticipated price tags on each project roughly doubled. RiverLights and Pine Valley jumped from an estimated $27 million each to around $44 million, while the expected cost to renovate Mary C. Williams rose from $7 million to $16 million.
Earlier in the year, the district’s facilities team recommended moving forward with the projects, not expecting labor or material prices to drop back down. Commissioners and school board members welcomed staff seeking grants from the state’s Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund, a program through the North Carolina Education Lottery.
The district estimated it could obtain up to $70.5 million in state funds to cover the total $103-million needed for the three projects. A $32.6-million local allotment and $676,918 in leftover bond money would cover the rest.
On May 3, the district learned it was denied a contribution from the program. The state Department of Public Instruction was targeting school systems in economically distressed counties, with desperate needs for new buildings and limited tax resources to pull funding from. New Hanover County officials regularly tout a rising tax base, with money flowing in from tourists and visitors of neighboring counties.
Twenty-eight counties across North Carolina were awarded the lottery grants, totaling over $395 million. The announcement marked the largest investment of revenue from the state education lottery since its 2006 inception.
In 2017, the N.C. General Assembly initiated the needs-based grant program to supplement the appropriations districts receive each year for capital projects. In fiscal year 2021, New Hanover County accepted $11.1 million in total from the lottery. The bulk — $6 million — funded non-instructional support.
Of $2 million allocated for school construction projects, about half of the funds are going toward designing security vestibules for Rachel Freeman School of Engineering, JC Roe Center, Lake Forest Academy and Williston Middle School.
Other construction and repair projects funded through the N.C. Education Lottery in fiscal year 2021 were:
- $273,341 to replace the rooftop HVAC unit at Alderman Elementary
- $200,000 to paint inside Eugene Ashley High
- $200,000 to replace building controls at E. A. Laney High
- $109,999 to improve drainage at Williston
- $120,621 to replace the HVAC at Lake Forest
- $124,873 for HVAC at Wrightsboro Elementary
- $163,264 to replace the exterior wall panel at Ashley
NHCS assigned $120,000 to upgrade and replace fire alarms at schools.
Russell Clark, spokesperson for NHCS, said the district intends to continue discussions on the three unfunded construction school projects, but each is paused until further notice.
The new schools are on the growing list of NHCS’ funding priorities as county commissioners tighten their oversight of the district’s spending. Currently, the school system is struggling to finalize a budget that raises minimum wages to $17 an hour for teacher assistants, who have pleaded for increases to help them pay the rising cost of living.
So far county leaders are recommending sticking with an appropriation of $3,434 per NHCS student in the next fiscal year, the current per-pupil allotment, but student enrollment — on which revenue is based — is dwindling. New Hanover County has directed the school district to stop sitting on money by reducing its fund balance from $16 million to $10 million and reprioritizing Covid-19 relief funds to help pay employees. In response, the county is scrapping millions in planned expenditures to award $1,000 bonuses to classified staff members whose salary increases would be delayed by one or two years under a proposed implementation schedule.
Pine Valley and RiverLights were expected to break ground by August 2023 and open by August 2025, then construction was slated to start at Mary C. Williams in June 2026 and reopen by August of that year.
According to NHCS, the elementary capital projects were prioritized over new high schools, as the K-5 classes are projected to see population increases over the next 10 years and high school student bodies would rise beyond that. After implementing these projects, NHCS is eyeing expansion at Hoggard High and Ashley High. It is not re-evaluating the need for a new high school until 2025.