ELIZABETHTOWN — A joint meeting between the Bladen County Board of Commissioners and Board of Education on Monday brought some clarity to the proposals for school consolidation and construction, but still left some questions on how to get there.
Schools Superintendent Robert Taylor, backed up by some members of the school board, school district administration and a couple of area principals, patiently explained where the school district was concerning those proposals.
“The school board recently approved moving forward with the proposal to close Tar Heel Middle and Plain View Primary, construct a new K-8 Tar Heel school and consolidate the students from those two schools there,” he said.
Taylor added that the school construction plan was put on the fast track because of the state’s Need Based Public School Capital Fund, which could amount to a 3:1 match up to $15 million.
“At that time, the grant that made the $15 million available had not been on the table in September,” he said. “That was something that was new that came out after the fact.”
Taylor said the deadline for the grant is Aug. 31, 2018, and the grants would be awarded on Sept. 30, 2018. He explained that, with a $5 million commitment from the county, the school construction project could receive up to $15 million from the grant.
“But, that’s not a guarantee,” County Chairman Charles Ray Peterson said. “We might get a dollar, we might get $15 million.”
Taylor agreed. He then gave the commissioners a estimation that a new school would cost $17.5 million to build — and up to another $7.5 million for all of the add-ons like furniture, technology and even potential land costs.
“It’s my intention to build a school for $25 million or less,” Taylor said. He added that the application for the grant money “can be anytime between the pre-planning and shovel-ready stages.”
Using those numbers, should the state award Bladen County the full grant amount of $15 million, it would make the county’s commitment a total of up to $10 million.
There was some back and forth over whether the school board’s proposals had changed over the past few months, but Taylor said the only change was the state grant now available, and that the school board was still in agreement the direction to take was the construction of a new school in Tar Heel.
That brought out questions over the dwindling enrollment numbers, but Taylor was ready for that, as well.
“Yes, we’ve seen enrollment go down at nearly every school except Tar Heel and Plain View,” he said. “So we feel secure in the numbers out there, which is why we thing construction should happen there. And it will give us a lot more flexibility should we need it down the road.”
The discussion branched off into the possibility of doing renovations and consolidation rather than a new build, but Taylor said renovations, even at fewer schools, could cost as much as $60 million to do correctly.
Taylor added that plans also include the closing of Booker T. Washington in Clarkton for the 2018-19 school year, and moving those students to various other schools.
Each commissioner had questions for Taylor, including:
— Where would a new school would be built? “We would like to build it on the current Tar Heel property, but soil testing and other aspects will need to be examined first.”
— When can more specific costs be available? “That will come in phases … but I think by Jan. 1 we should have a good idea.”
— What will happen with the vacated school buildings? “We don’t want to be in the business of maintaining vacant buildings, so we are hopeful there will be some community interest in them.”
— What will be left in Clarkton? “Clarkton School of Discovery will become a fifth- through eighth-grade school with the Project Challenge program intact.”
As the meeting began to wrap up, some of the commissioners had closing remarks.
“We used to have 10 high schools here in Bladen County and now we have two,” said Commissioner Ophelia Munn-Goins. “Mine was one of those that closed.
“This is a very hard decision for both of these boards, but I want to make sure we make a decision that will be good for all of Bladen County,” she added. “We need to do what’s most equitable for all of our students.”
“I don’t think it could be said any better,” he said. “I think it’s important we all have a clear understanding of the proposal, what the enrollment estimates are and what the school board sees as the priorities — along with the costs involved.”
Taylor was asked to put together a priority list with all associated costs — for construction, consolidation and renovation — and get it to the board before the end of the year, and he agreed to do that.
W. Curt Vincent can be reached at 910-862-4163 or firstname.lastname@example.org.