Leaders discuss schools’ outlook

Published 2:24 pm Thursday, December 23, 2010

Contributing Writer

One day after the Beaufort County Board of Education approved a long-range building plan that its chairman said “nobody ever pays any attention to,” some of its members met to discuss a study that will guide future construction needs.
Local school board members — most of them members of a committee tasked with overseeing the school system’s buildings, grounds and finances — met Tuesday with a subcommittee of the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners to determine the scope of a study to identify existing school buildings and their capacity and compare them with future population trends.
The end product is intended to help school and county leaders determine where those school construction needs will be over the next 10 years. The study is scheduled to be completed by March 1, the group was told.
The commissioners, about two years ago, called for a study of school construction needs, but that study was delayed while the school board searched for a successor to former Superintendent Jeff Moss.
They also allocated up to $40,000 to be spent for that study.
School leaders initially intended to include professional forecasts of demographic trends in Beaufort County over the next 10 years to help county and school leaders target potential growth in student population. But at the insistence of one commissioner, that portion of the study was eliminated and, instead, those figures will be compiled from “common sense” estimates.
“My whole purpose is to try to fit the future growth to the schools that are already built,” said Commissioner Hood Richardson. “I can come up with my own demographic figures.”
Some members of the group took issue with Richardson and said the study should include professional estimates of future population trends to help the county better determine future school construction needs.
“Some parts of the county are growing faster than others,” said Commissioner Jay McRoy. “We need to make sure we’ve got our spending priorities where the students are going to be and not spend them in the wrong place.”
School board member Terry Williams agreed with McRoy’s assessment.
“We do need some projections,” Williams said. “We don’t need to build schools where we don’t need them to be.”
The first step in the study will be to inventory the school system’s existing buildings and evaluate how they are being used today, the committee was told.
That inventory will be conducted by Hite Associates, a Greenville architecture, engineering and technology firm.
Existing buildings will be evaluated based on their size and adequacy for their student populations as compared to state averages. They will be surveyed for any upgrades needed, energy usage, roofing needs, hazardous materials, site conditions and continued life expectancy, among other factors, Hite said.
Using this information, along with the study of population trends for the county, a list of critical needs and improvements will be developed for each school along with drawings of any new construction that is needed to met those needs, Hite said.
The study will also include cost estimates of those improvements, he said.
While no estimate of the cost of the study was made, Hite said his firm will charge only for it “technical time” at a discounted rate and will donate its professional services.
School board Chairman Robert Belcher said, in an interview after the meeting, that he hoped county leaders would take the study seriously and that it would lead to the elimination of many of the mobile units being used at the schools.
“If we can get them to recognize substandard facilities, that would be a plus for us,” he said. “We’ll just have to see how it comes out.”
On Monday, the school board unanimously approved a state-mandated five year facility survey and assessment.
The N.C. Department of Public Instruction requires school systems statewide to conduct  a study of its capital needs.
Local school officials told the department of the pending county-funded study and asked for a delay in the state-mandated assessment, but that delay was not granted, the school board was told.
The state-mandated survey is intended to list all school improvements and additional buildings and renovations needed to accommodate projected enrollments through the 2015-16 school year.
The plan, as approved by the board, identifies some $21.6 million in school additions, renovations and equipment purchases needed over the next five years and some $6.1 million in additional capital needs over the following five years.
Belcher characterized that study as simply “a wish list.”
“The truth is, nobody ever pays any attention to it,” he said. “Every child has a wish list at Christmas, then the parents knock it down to what they can afford.”
Belcher added that when the county-funded study is finished, “we will find out what we can do.”