Chatham County Schools is in the midst of construction on Chatham Grove Elementary School and Seaforth High School, and beginning design on a new Central Services building. District COO Chris Blice walked the News + Record through those projects and the thinking behind them.
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PITTSBORO – An important balance that comes with school construction, according to Chatham County Schools’ chief operating officer Chris Blice, is managing the need to increase the amount of available capacity in a fiscally-responsible manner.
For example, Blice said, take a look at Northwood High School. Several years ago, he said, people were clamoring for a new high school as Northwood’s population rose. But at the time, the district would have ended up with two high schools with around 450 students each.
That’s a really small high school for which you’d need two sets of staff, two principals, two sets of utility bills, Blice says, and it wouldn’t have been the right decision financially.
But now, there’s no choice. According to Blice, Northwood has grown by more than 40 percent in the last 10 years and is running out of room. Couple that with growth at Perry Harrison School, and a new high school and elementary school couldn’t wait.
“You can’t build it until the kids are there,” he said. “You don’t want it to be a crisis, but it has to be, ‘The need is here.’”
The district is now in the midst of construction on Chatham Grove Elementary School and Seaforth High School, and beginning design on a new Central Services building. Blice walked the News + Record through those projects and the thinking behind them.
Chatham Grove Elementary School
The northeastern part of Chatham County is experiencing significant population growth as the Raleigh metro area becomes crowded and residents spread out. The Operations Research and Education Laboratory (OR/Ed) at N.C. State University, which Chatham County Schools consults with regularly, says both North Chatham Elementary and Perry Harrison are expected to exceed student capacity in the next five years – and that’s not factoring in any potential population boom at Chatham Park.
The district already built a school to lower population at those institutions — Margaret B. Pollard Middle School in 2010. Prior to that, both North Chatham and Perry Harrison were K-8s, become K-5s when Pollard Middle opened.
North Chatham’s population has stayed more or less steady since the 2010-2011 school year, but Perry Harrison’s has risen from 473 in May 2011 to 801 students at the beginning of this year – a 51.4 percent increase.
That population increase warranted the district’s attention alone, but the N.C. General Assembly’s 2017 mandate to lower class sizes in the kindergarten through third grade level made capacity even tighter at North Chatham and Perry Harrison, Blice said.
Chatham Grove, currently under construction at 1301 Andrews Store Rd. in Pittsboro, is designed to handle that. It is expected to hold 750 students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, taking some of the student load from Perry Harrison and North Chatham and possibly Pittsboro Elementary.
The $33 million-plus school is expected to open in the fall of 2020, and even though hurricanes and snowfall have hit the county, it’s on time.
“Despite the weather, the project has been progressing and remains on schedule," Chatham County Schools Director of Maintenance and Construction Randy Drumheller said in a mid-December press release. "Retaining walls are complete. Storm drainage, foundations and masonry are in progress, as well as the underground installation of electrical and plumbing. In addition, 80 of the 150 geothermal wells have been drilled.”
Seaforth High School
Seaforth High came out of a need at the high school level, specifically the aforementioned growth at Northwood, located right across the street from the beginning phase of Chatham Park.
The district considered making an addition at Northwood, Blice said, but it was going to cost the district $30-40 million, and would only be a short-term fix. Then the residential neighborhood Briar Chapel and Chatham Park came about.
Without Chatham Park, Blice said, the district projected that Northwood’s student population would reach more than 1,700 in 10 years; it was at 1,399 at the beginning of this year. Assuming Chatham Park grows at its expected rate, and Northwood would be facing a student population of 2,300 a decade from now.
“Even without Chatham Park, the growth is coming,” Blice said. “As a district, we’re growing, period.”
Seaforth – located at 444 Seaforth Road in Pittsboro, on the western side of Jordan Lake – is slated to hold 1,200 students initially, but there’s space on the site to add capacity for an additional 200 students. The 209,000-square foot school, projected to cost upwards of $74 million, is should open in August 2021.
Central Services Building
The current Central Services building has already exceeded its capacity, requiring the creation of three satellite offices at various schools in the county. Horton Middle, one of those schools, is going to be full soon, even without Chatham Park, Blice said.
“We’ve got to get out of there, and if you add Chatham Park to it, we’ve got to get out of there, pretty quick, because we need the space for classrooms, and there’s not a whole lot of space to put modular units because they built it on a hill,” he said. “You can put some in, but you can only put so many.”
When Blice took on the COO mantle in 2013, he said, he wanted to focus on three things related to infrastructure – transportation, maintenance and Central Services. Upgrades and renovations have already been made to the transportation building in Pittsboro, allowing it to service both school district and county vehicles, and the maintenance department has been moved to a renovated site.
Central Services is next. The current building has passed its intended lifespan, according to a 2014 facility conditions assessment, and is in need of costly repairs, which wouldn’t address the space issue.
The new facility, likely to be located on the same site as the current building, is currently in the design phase. It’s projected to be a two-story, 34,000-square-foot building designed to house “all departments in one location,” according to Chatham County’s Capital Improvements Program. It’s projected to cost more than $11 million.
Remaking the District
Blice admits that the transportation, maintenance and Central Services upgrades aren’t the most appealing to the public. But he assures that it’s worth it.
“Nobody goes over to transportation and says, ‘I just can’t believe that we own this,’” he said. “We had to fix the infrastructure first, and then we had to start building new schools. When people say we’re spending a lot of money – and we are – they’re for a good reason.”
Discussions were had about making renovations or additions to the Central Services building, but it became more about planning for the coming years.
“You reach a point where you’ve got to make a decision: do you keep on doing that, or do you want to knock it down and build what you need and build for the future?” Blice said. “It’s building for the future. It’s building capacity for the future.”
The county is slated to pay for the $119,082,824 total of these three projects with debt proceeds, in addition to funds from the sale of the district’s old bus garage to the county, according to Chatham’s CIP. The county’s official financial policy is to not be over-reliant on debt, but to save it for “the construction of capital facilities and the purchase of capital assets.”
According to the CIP, 7.7 cents of the annual property tax rate is dedicated toward capital projects and debt payment. With no growth projected for lottery proceeds, usually dedicated toward school capital improvements, an additional contribution of 1.5 cents will be needed to cover debt-funded projects in FY 2020, the CIP states.
Whether or not that means a property tax rate increase remains to be seen, Chatham County Interim Manager Dan LaMontagne told the News + Record last month. That decision will likely be made during the upcoming county budget process.