Schools seeking $50 million grant for new high school

By Catharin Shepard • Staff writer • Hoke commissioners and school board members joined forces Monday to pursue a $50 million grant from the state with a $10 million local match that could be used to build a new high school facility.

School officials aren’t far enough along in the process to have made decisions on important details of the project, such as where a new high school facility would go or exactly what options it would include. First, the school system must apply for the grant. Getting support from the county commissioners Monday night was an early step in the process.

Hoke County Schools Superintendent Dr. Debra Dowless presented the request to the board. She explained that the school system previously received a $10 million grant that officials had originally planned to put toward a School of Engineering for high school students. However, the recent passing of the state budget repealed some stipulations that were tied to that funding, and made it possible for the school system to ask for more grant money.

“As you know, we currently have a needs-based public school capital grant in the amount of $20 million, which was $10 million from the state with a county match of $10 million, so remember it was a one-to-one match. Well, the new bill has basically made revisions to that grant and they have removed the tiering situation,” Dowless told commissioners. “At the time we wrote that grant, we were a tier two, which is why we were a one-to-one match, which was $10 million to $10 million. What they have done is, they have removed the tiering and they are basing now the match that you would need to do, based on the adjusted market value of our taxable real property.

“So basically what this allows us to do is, instead of asking only for $10 million, that we could actually instead of the $10 million, ask for $50 million with a match of five percent from the county,” the superintendent said.

Getting an agreement from the county board that Hoke will provide the matching funds was the starting point for seeking the grant funding.

“Basically what we’re asking is just to submit a joint letter, it does not cement anything, it is not actually the full process. We will probably be receiving an application from (the Department of Public Instruction) DPI that we will have to fill out to basically formally request…but this is just kind of a gesture and basically trying to put us in line with other districts who will be requesting additional money,” Dowless said.

Although the required five percent match would be $2.5 million, the school system requested a $10 million match from the county to go along with the $50 million in grant funding, to provide a total of $60 million for a new high school facility.

It is a time sensitive matter, as the school system needs to get the process started quickly, Commissioner Harry Southerland said.

“Time is of the essence. I have spoken with some leaders in Raleigh, and we do have a time issue because this $50 million is really about half a billion …there’s going to be 10 grants given out through the state of North Carolina, and Hoke County is in line to receive one of these grants for $50 million,” Southerland said.

Commissioners and education officials spoke positively about the grant. Commissioner James Leach called it a “golden opportunity,” and Dowless said that the funding is a “once in a lifetime opportunity for Hoke County.”

Commission Chairman Allen Thomas said the previous grant had some stipulations that caught the county by surprise, such as an issue regarding withholding of lottery money.

“We were surprised by a few things, we don’t want to be surprised again,” he said in discussions of the matter.

While the state is still working out details and the school district is awaiting further guidance, it appears that those earlier grant stipulations have been repealed as part of the recent budget, Dowless said.

“What did you have in mind with this money?” Thomas asked.

“What we have in mind is basically taking the building that we thought originally for STEM, and creating a much larger space, creating more classroom space. As you know in our current high school, we’re very crowded,” Dowless said. “Basically if we get this money, it can be a building that can be twice the size of what we were looking at. We could consider a gymnasium, we could consider a cafeteria or a culinary arts (program). There’s a lot of opportunities that we could have.”

Commission Vice Chairman Tony Hunt said the board would like to know more about what the proposed facility might include.

“Bring us back maybe a couple of different ideas so we have maybe a couple of options that we can look at,” he said.

Following the discussions, at the request of the Board of Education, the Hoke County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to approve a letter of support and commit to providing local money as a match.

“I think the gesture of a joint letter lets them know that we’re all on board to basically build a larger high school building that would really serve a lot more of our students,” Dowless said.

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