Durham County

Voters approved 2 school projects. Here’s why they’re only getting one.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools officials say Triangle construction cost increases could add another $15 million to $20 million to a $52.4 million plan to renovate and rebuild parts of Chapel Hill High School (pictured in this artist’s rendering).
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools officials say Triangle construction cost increases could add another $15 million to $20 million to a $52.4 million plan to renovate and rebuild parts of Chapel Hill High School (pictured in this artist’s rendering). Artist’s rendering Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools

Because of high construction costs, the $73 million bond issue that voters approved in 2016 to remake the Lincoln Center Campus and Chapel Hill High School is no longer enough to pay for them both.

The price of the projects has soared to roughly $102 million, a 40 percent increase.

So, tough choices are ahead for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education, now faced with choosing between the two projects or delaying one or both of them and paying more to get them done later.

Whatever the board decides, it’s going to be without financial help from Orange County.

“I don’t think we have any more money,” County Commissioner Mia Burroughs, a former school board member, said Monday.

That sentiment was shared by other commissioners who expressed reluctance to raise taxes and who contend the county is at the limit of its debt load.

Board leaning toward Lincoln Center

School board members clearly appeared in favor of moving ahead with the Lincoln Center project. CHCCS has until Dec. 26 to accept the low-base bid of $34.3 million -- almost $10 million above the $25 million earmarked for the project.

In an interview, school board Chairman James Barrett said the board would likely discuss how to proceed at its Dec. 7 business meeting.

The Lincoln Center Campus project includes new buildings for pre-K classrooms and Phoenix Academy, the district’s alternative school, and new administrative offices that would be built atop of the preschool.

School officials said moving forward with the project would give the district its long-awaited, centralized pre-kindergarten center for 189 students. Once operating, the center would free up classroom space in elementary schools, as the district tries to meet state mandated smaller K-3 class sizes.

What happens to Chapel Hill High?

The Chapel Hill High project won’t be bid on until the spring, but it is expected to come in about $20 million over the $44 million budgeted to push the cost of both projects to roughly $102 million, or nearly $30 million over projected costs.

The rising cost is a reflection of what’s happening throughout the region. A recent N.C. Department of Public Instruction bid analysis of the Triangle area school construction costs show a 60 percent increase since 2013.

The higher construction costs are being driven by a building boom in the Triangle region. Contractors have plenty of work and are able to pick and choose the projects on which they work and charge higher fees.

The Chapel Hill High project includes two new academic buildings, renovation to the Cultural Arts and gymnasium/cafeteria buildings, site improvements to address stormwater issues and entrance and egress improvements.

If the board moves forward with the Lincoln Center projects, the Chapel Hill High project could be left undone or greatly scaled back.

“The other approach is not to move forward with Lincoln Center, but that results in us having to rebid the project,” said Todd LoFrese, the district’s assistant superintendent for support services. “We believe the cost will go up. This is the lowest price we are likely to get.”

A former parent’s perspective

Commissioner Penny Rich, a former Chapel Hill High parent said she wouldn’t want to be the one to explain to parents why improvements at a school that desperately needs them got pushed aside.

“I just want to know what you’re going to say to the Chapel Hill High parents as you prioritize Lincoln Center knowing that we don’t have an additional $30 million for both projects,” Rich said. “Being a parent who just sent two children through Chapel Hill High, I see Chapel Hill High as the priority.”

“I can tell you, that as a parent, when I know my child is going to Chapel Hill High when the other kids are going to Carrboro High and East [Chapel Hill High School], and they’re in a setting that’s really kind of nice and my kid’s in a dump, you’re going to have to do a lot explaining,” she said.

Rani Dasi, vice chairwoman of the school board, said she is also a Chapel Hill High parent but that solving the district’s capacity problem is the higher priority.

“For my children, I want Chapel Hill High done today, but for the district, I think we have to look at where the biggest gaps are,” Dasi said. The district can make improvements at Chapel Hill High in phases, she said.

Commissioner Barry Jacobs said the board should not worry about meeting the Dec. 26 deadline to accept the the Lincoln Center bid.

“To me, this is a chance to think differently, to talk about phasing Chapel Hill High and putting the next phase in the next bond package and figuring out how you would cut it in half and then you might have the money to do half and then the entire Lincoln Center,” Jacobs said. “I’m not saying that’s going to work, but let’s just set aside our assumptions for a while and see what we can come up with together.

Jacobs said other solutions such as year-round schools and mobile classrooms are also worth consideration.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645