DOBSON — Changes in estimated school repair costs have jumped, leaving county officials to figure out how to make the numbers work.
Earlier this year, the county had an $8 million bond issuance so that it could finance some big renovation projects including: the conversion of Dobson Plaza, restoration of the historic courthouse, converting a Pike building into a city school headquarters, and planning and designs to renovate Elkin High School’s gym and build an auxiliary gym.
For Surry County Schools, this bond money would go toward planning for three elementary schools to have major work next year.
In July, the estimates for the three elementary schools, plus Elkin gym project and HVAC work at Mount Airy High School stood at $29.4 million.
Last Thursday, the Surry County Board of Education held a special meeting to get an update on its three schools. The board learned that expected costs have shot up about 10 percent.
Dobson Elementary went from $6,055,574 to $7,435,670.
Franklin Elementary increased from $6,221,764 to $7,181,231.
Mountain Park went from $7,468,724 to $8,008,561.
The total for the three schools increased from $19,746,062 to $23,615,462. That’s a difference of $2.9 million.
The Elkin gym project was estimated in July at $8,673,935. A similar 10-percent increase — along with an estimated $1 million for MAHS’s HVAC work — would boost the expected costs from $29.42 million to $33.17 million.
Commissioner Eddie Harris said he and Commissioner Van Tucker attended the school meeting last week. If that weren’t enough of an increase, the school board had two new requests that would add another $2.8 million to the tab.
Surry County Schools would like the addition of four classrooms at Franklin Elementary at an expected cost of $1.6 million. The school board is asking that some flat roofs be converted to pitched roofs because of known issues with flat roofs; this would add $1.2 million.
Wondering how the county could take on such debt, especially with a jail project lingering in the future at an estimated $35 million, the board asked financial advisor Doug Carter to come to Monday’s meeting.
Harris said to Carter that his concern is staying within the guidelines of the financial model with revenue projections and all the unknown factors.
Carter said he looked at several options, including the idea of moving up the jail project by a year and a half to get ahead of even further escalating costs and expenses.
The courthouse and shopping center projects came in under forecasts, and with lower interest rates than expected, so that makes up for a good portion of the $2.9 million increase on the school forecasts, Carter believed.
Perhaps those bids could come in under estimates, too, and then the total bottom line might come out even, he said.
If that is the case, then it makes it possible to revisit the two school add-ons, Harris said, seeming to imply that he didn’t think it feasible to approve classroom additions or pitched roofs now.
Carter said he didn’t see additional wiggle room at this time for those extras, especially since the jail project won’t go to bid for more than a year.
Commissioner Gary Tilley asked what Carter saw as a worse-case scenario.
What if the bids come in higher than expected and then interest rates in the bond issuance aren’t favorable, Carter answered.
In a truly worst case, said Harris, maybe the county can’t afford to do all three schools at one time.
Harris saw Dr. Travis Reeves, county superintendent, in the audience and asked if he had anything to add.
Reeves said the school system did try to save money where possible such as how the HVAC systems are planned. Also, the increase in Mountain Park isn’t just rising costs, but a needed replacement for a roof on a building that was originally built in 1952. And there was a desire to enclose a couple of walkways between buildings for safety issues.
Once the renovations are done at Franklin Elementary, there will only be two empty classrooms left, Reeves told the school board over the summer. However, changes in state law have mandated smaller class sizes for grades kindergarten to third grade, so schools are having to spread out and take up more space.
Reeves said Franklin won’t have any available space after renovations so that is why the request for four more rooms. The sloped roofs would be nice, but if something had to be prioritized, then the classrooms are more needed.
Tucker brought up that the district’s enrollment numbers have been declining so wouldn’t the existing space be sufficient at Franklin.
Reeves said he has no idea what might happen in the future. Enrollment could bounce back, especially since Franklin’s district is right up against city limits. Or more grades could see class size limits decrease. All he could say is that the school has no room going forward.
Commissioner Larry Johnson asked, “When does all this go to bid?”
Members of the Finance Department answered that bids will go out early next year.
Reeves said he would like to start work in April, for the things that can be done while school is in session. He reminded the board that next summer will be a shorter-than-usual vacation.
With county schools going to a new schedule for 2019-20, graduations will be over by June 11, but then school starts back Aug. 7, so there is less than two months to get work done that can’t be completed with school in session.
Reach Jeff at 415-4692.