$28 million SandHoke School of Engineering for high school students top priority in facilities plan

By Catharin Shepard • Staff writer • Hoke County Schools is seeking about $18 million in funding from Hoke County taxpayers to help build a $28 million SandHoke School of Engineering, to open new doors for students and reduce overcrowding at Hoke High.

Last October the school system received $10 million in grant funding from the Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund, which helps pay for new school construction in economically distressed counties. In order for the school system to get the grant money, Hoke County must provide a dollar-for-wdollar matching contribution. The money is restricted: the schools can only use the grant to build new school facilities.

Hoke Schools Superintendent Dr. Debra Dowless presented the information to the Hoke Board of Commissioners Monday night, as part of a larger school facility needs plan. Every five years, North Carolina school districts must submit a school facilities plan to the state Department of Public Instruction.
“This plan basically reflects suggested renovations, construction, updates to our school facilities for the next five years,” Dowless said. “The main purpose of the plan reflects years one through five, but the plan also does include some long-term planning, years six through 10.”

The plan is not a commitment or endorsement to fund anything, just a roadmap for possible growth, the superintendent said.

“As a school district, we have to think about smart growth as well and what that means for our school system and what that means for our facilities,” Dowless said.

The commissioners were not asked to take any action on the matter during the meeting.

The proposed “state-of-the-art” SandHoke School of Engineering would have room for up to 500 high school students at its facility on East Central Avenue in Raeford, on the Sandhills Community College satellite campus. The proposed engineering school would be about 64,000 square feet and would feature over 20 classrooms/labs, a cafeteria, a multipurpose room, resource rooms, collaboration space and related office spaces, according to school officials.

Similar to SandHoke Early College, the plan would be to bring in 125 freshmen each year over a four-year period to slowly populate the engineering school, Dowless told commissioners. That would direct some students away from the crowded Hoke High School campus. It would also offer new opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, including potential career training for interested incoming high school students.

“The purpose of that school is not only to offer kids a pathway towards engineering, but it will also take 500 students out of our current high school, and it would alleviate our overcrowding at the high school and put the high school back at a level capacity,” Dowless said.

While the construction project comes with an $18 million price tag for the county, if Hoke can take advantage of available tax credits, the actual cost could end up being somewhat less expensive, Commission Chairman Harry Southerland said.

“We’re just still in the discussion stages, but I do know that speaking with the architect, Robbie Ferris, he has at least $5 million in tax credits which would bring our price down to $13-14 million. Still a nice chunk of change, but still it would bring it down about $4-5 million,” Southerland said.

And, officials said, an engineering-focused high school would be significantly less expensive than building a brand-new high school. In comparison, a totally new high school to serve all of Hoke’s students could cost upwards of $75 million, according to a price quoted at the meeting.

The high cost, and difficulty in providing the same services at two high schools are the reasons school leaders have repeatedly cited over the last several years as to why Hoke isn’t pursuing a new high school. Other, smaller projects proposed over the last decade, also with the intention of decreasing crowding at Hoke High, never gained traction.

Southerland noted that he and Commissioner James Leach have discussed the project with school board members. This was not the first time the schools applied for the grant, Leach said.

When the school district applied for the funding the first time, the plan was for the county to come up with $5 million and Sandhills Community College to provide $5 million to match the grant. It wasn’t the intent for the county to provide $18 million in funding, Leach said. However, the first attempt at securing the grant money was not successful.

Commission Vice Chairman Allen Thomas asked for clarification on the county’s support for the grant. He later commented on wanting to make sure financial matters receive input from the county board at large.

“I want to make sure that we’re on the same page that one commissioner can’t sign on behalf of the county when dealing with money. I want to be sure we’re on the same page with that moving forward,” he said.

Commissioner Lonnie Baldwin asked for clarification on how students would be chosen to attend the school. As it would be a student’s choice whether to seek to attend the engineering school, there isn’t a guarantee it would reach its potential full enrollment of 500 students and effectively reduce overcrowding at Hoke High, Baldwin noted.

“I think what we’re offering, I feel confident those students would come for that,” Dowless said. The high school gets about 600 new freshmen each year.

Aside from the proposed SandHoke School of Engineering, a longer-term goal would be to focus on providing more facilities for elementary school-aged children in Hoke County, according to the plan. Some elementary schools in the county are already struggling for space. The plan additionally suggested building more classrooms at some county schools, and included about $3 million in renovations for the Raz Autry Stadium at Hoke High.

The school district worked with an outside company to develop the plan, which took into account projected enrollment growth, facility age and other factors. Hoke County’s oldest school facility still in use today is over 85 years old, Dowless noted, and its newest is Sandy Grove Middle, which opened in 2013.

Classes start back this week after the Christmas break, but students will learn from home for the month of January. School officials chose to close school buildings due to the spread of COVID-19 in the Hoke County community.

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