By Richard Sullins | email@example.com
Having enough capacity to accommodate the levels of growth being forecasted for Lee County over the next 10 years requires a large number of seats at the discussion table. But few of those chairs will be more important to those conversations than the ones occupied by the Lee County Schools district.
Simply put, the number of families having school-aged children and who might consider making their homes here will be negatively impacted if there is no room for them in our classrooms.
Getting those sorts of conversations started is vital if Lee County hopes to continue its success in luring more and better-paying jobs here by the time population is estimated to reach 65,000 persons by the end of 2025. The Facilities and Technologies Committee of the Lee County Board of Education got out its defibrillator recently in an attempt to bring back to life the process by which new schools get built and existing schools are updated.
“A place to start the conversation”
The units of county government are already working to create lists of items they want to see in the county’s upcoming budget for Fiscal Year 2023-24. The school board was among the first to get started this year and the committee got its first look at six projects that could potentially be on the district’s wish list of capital improvements when the new budget year begins on July 1.
This document, known as the Capital Improvements Program, is a five-year plan intended to stimulate thinking among the school board on what priorities should be established as part of a strategic effort to create the best possible network of structures to facilitate learning among students.
LCS Superintendent Dr. Andy Bryan told the committee that developing a plan that projects the school system’s needs over a five-year period needs a definite beginning point, saying “this is a summary of where we think we might be. It’s a place to at least start the conversation.”
What’s in the plan
The CIP includes, at least for now, the construction of an auditorium and six new classrooms at Southern Lee High School that would be funded in FY 2023-24 if the request gets approval. When the school was completed in 2005, a planned auditorium had to be cut from the campus’ architectural drawings because there weren’t enough funds. The cost of building out the auditorium and learning spaces is estimated to be $13,306,975.
Lee County High School, which last saw construction in 2011, needs repairs and upgrades across its campus, too. The HVAC system in the auditorium needs replacement, there is asbestos that needs to be removed or abated, and all classrooms, restrooms, and hallways needs upgrading. The total estimated cost for these renovations at LCHS is $6,492,500.
When the East Lee and West Lee middle schools were completed in 1978, each was outfitted with a gymnasium that didn’t have a regulation sized court and seating was limited to no more than 280 persons. The CIP proposes new gyms be built on each of the campuses.
The architectural design for both gyms would include a connection with the existing smaller ones. This new design would allow for the creation of bigger courts that would be regulation-sized for basketball and volleyball, with seating capacity increased to 800 persons. They would be identical and cost $11,167,100 per facility.
The plan also contains cost estimates for constructing either a new elementary school ($43,325,700) or a middle school ($53,307,400), and for land acquisition ($2,450,700).
More than construction costs
Bryan acknowledged that average daily enrollment numbers provided by the Department of Public Instruction show that about 9,100 students attend the county’s 17 schools each day, a number that has rebounded by about 100 students from last year but still well below the current capacity of the system to hold just over 10,400 students a day.
Bryan believes the county is just on the cusp of a boom that will happen as new homes are completed and new industries come online. He cited the authorization of about 12,000 new homes that have been approved for construction in the county over the past two years. He recognized that not all of the homes given approval will actually be built, but even if new owners occupy just 30 percent of that number, that will still create a potential for up to 3,600 new students or more.
Republican County Commissioner Bill Carver, who serves as his group’s liaison with the school board and was present for the meeting, agreed that the county needs solid numbers to base its planning assumptions on.
“I’m not sure who has the best crystal ball here,” he said. “One thing that would help me as a commissioner is to state what the hypothesis is – what percentage of those 12,000 homes approved will actually be built. Also, what will the entry points that will be needed in the elementary, middle, and high schools ranges where they will need to enroll?”
A second issue the boards will have to address concerns the county’s ability to have enough teachers to staff any new schools. Like other counties, Lee has had its share of teachers leave the classroom to work in larger and more affluent surrounding counties that pay more.
It’s a concern that was expressed by committee member Jamie Laudate.
“None of us wants to run the risk of building another school not only without students to go there, but also of not having enough teachers to staff the classrooms,” he said.
The state provides funding for the salaries of most teachers, but the county also receives salary money from federal and local sources, grants, and institutional funds that provide dollars for things like art and music instruction that have been eliminated from school budgets over the past few decades.
Having a large pool of teacher candidates and the ability to pay them well is a concern for Carver.
“I’ve been thinking more in terms of the amount of money the commissioners give to fill the teacher slots,” he said. “As important as it is for us to talk about buildings and land, it wouldn’t make sense for us to spend tens of millions of dollars for those things if we wouldn’t have enough students and faculty make those engines run.”
What comes next?
A discussion about the CIP is on the agenda for Tuesday evening’s meeting of the school board. That’s a critical step if there is to be any hope for growing our school system. Another will come when Dr. Bryan meets soon with Don Kovasckitz, the county’s director of GIS strategic services, and others to look in greater detail for places where growth is most likely to occur in Lee County and what tracts of land might be suitable for a new school location.
School board member Alan Rummel is expected to report on the restart of the planning process at Tuesday’s meeting. With construction costs continuing to rise, the estimated price tag for new school construction is estimated to be around $285 per square foot. Time is of the essence for other reasons, too. From the first conversation about the process until the day that a new school can open, three years will have gone by. If there is determined to be a need for a new school in the near future, the earliest it could open now would be 2026.
But one circumstance that sets Lee County apart from others with similar needs shouldn’t be an issue in the near future. After a summary of its financials was presented in December, County Manager Dr. John Crumpton told the commissioners “if we needed to spend money today on schools, we are ready. I want to make that perfectly clear. We are ready.”
While anxious to get the discussion started, Rummel favors an approach that move slowly at first as it builds consensus.
“We need to make clear to the commissioners that we are not asking for new elementary or middle schools, but we could couch it as saying that we think we see coming about 3,800 new students,” he said. “And we need to be planning for that day.”
In the north and western parts of the County, municipal sewer and streets determine the viability of elementary school sites. These are City of Sanford issues. There are good “brownfield” sites in the City as it is now.
If the schools want to make life better they need to get behind some street improvements that make it possible to access St. Andrews Church Road and Lee Avenue from NC 87 near Woodbridge.
You need bridge over US 1 at Hickory House and Arthur Maddox. You need to tie Bruce Coggins into Lemon Springs Road and you need to connect Valley Road to Tempting Church road.
This allows you to move students around without the Railroad, US 1, and NC 87 cutting the County in slices that are difficult to navigate.
You already know that the City is building a defacto new town around the airport – Deep Osgood? Gum Fork/Copper Mine town? Let’s keep calling it Deep River.
The point is that growth spot is known, but depending on where sewer goes south of Tramway, that will be the next high density spot.
Some thought needs to be given to including the Chatham County BOE regarding an elementary school situation along the Deep River between the Rocky River and Pfizer/Chicken Plant otherwise in 20 years you might have a rath of kids having to bus all the way into Pittsboro or to Bullock or New Osgood/Deep River instead of being served near Gulf or Egypt.
Are there any vocational school options or private enterprise considerations such as more charter schools?
These new apts being built in tramway look nice , but the traffic when tramway school starts & ends is terrible, there needs to be something done , the parents line up from the school all the way to #1, there needs to be another lane just for parents picking up kids so people who need to get down center church Rd don’t get stuck in this traffic
Supposedly NC DOT is working on something that might help that, but the problems you see today are rooted in decisions made 30-40 years ago regarding the basic development format of Tramway.
Put another way, the people in Tramway did not want to hear what any professional planners had to say about their future – they thought they controlled their future and they did not.
Now you have a mess.
You have to connect Pendergrass to Henley Road such that the Tramway Elementary can be given a second entrance/exit. Then you need to extend Pressley Foushee to Hickory House Road. This gives you the ability to orbit around US 1 /NC 78 and miss that intersection – even when it is improved it will always suck because it was never addressed when it was cheap to do so.
What is happening now is that the Planning Department is trying to make this happen as residential develops – tieing spaghetti straps together so to speak.
That approach will reach critical failure in about 7 years as the volumes of traffic driven by development choke US 1 and choke NC 87 south. Often it takes someone who has not lived continuously in the immediate area to see and forecast the problems. Some things are difficult to imagine.
It’s also hard to tell people what to do with their land, so government has to be prepared to pay people the full value for it and just move forward.
PS, Someone needs to be planning for the eventual designation of US from NC 42 to Southern PInes or thereabout as limited access Interstate. It will happen.
We will also need a few more grocery stores , especially in tramway !
Why are all these parents lined up daily picking their kids up from school anyway? Are they too good to ride the bus? I’ve seen traffic backed up all the way down Tramway Road, turn left at the light onto the highway…and that same pick-up traffic is lined up, parked on the side of the road on US 1 for what looks like forever. What is that?
They aren’t; they think they are too good. It’s what happens when people are put on a pedestal.
I have complained about tramway school traffic, no one seems to care, sometimes the parents pull over on shoulder of the road, & you can go around all of them, but there is a slight hill, & if you meet someone coming the other way, it can be dangerous, other times, the parents are sitting in the whole lane which makes it impossible to go around in the wrong lane,so if you get caught at the wrong time trying to go somewhere, you have to wait til the sheriff starts moving the traffic
To whom did you complain?
The NC DOT controls the road. The County controls nothing. The BOE controls only the internal circulation on the campus.
The City can build a road in the area or require one be built but that will no doubt step on some private property owners toes. Then the very people who want something will complain about the cost, who got the bid for the work, and the quality of the work.
Invest in refurbishing abandoned school buildings in the county like they did WB Wicker. Old McIver School is an eye sore and needs something done with it. Not only will the county save money on building a whole new school the city commissioners can move some of that money and pay teachers a higher salary and fix some of these roads that needs attention.
Have you seen the neighborhood around McIver? Are you prepared to purchase surrounding blocks of slum housing?
Old Sanford High School is a better investment but will be quite expensive.
You can build a new McIver near San Lee Drive, San Lee Park, Pumping Station and get enough land to meet the State of NC Requirements and not have to deal with lead paint, lead in the soil, and asbestos at old McIver.
Most old schools live McIver are converted to apartments in NC.