[Photo: SFL+A architect Robbie Ferris shows off the proposed plan for the on-site replacement at Hoke High School. The plan hinges on the city closing part of Bethel Road.]
By Catharin Shepard • Staff writer • Big changes are coming to Hoke County High School if the Hoke County Board of Education moves forward with an early proposed design for a $78 million on-site replacement for the aging, crowded school.
The current plan in development would create one large school building on the Gibson side of campus that will house core classes like English and math, with Career and Technical Education and other programs moving to the MacDonald side of campus.
“It’s been very exciting, we’re really moving with the project now,” SFL+A architect Robbie Ferris said.
It was a numbers game for the Hoke County Board of Commissioners when they heard the presentation Monday night, with board members asking questions about building capacity, cost – especially given inflation – and how long the replacement will be able to keep up with Hoke High’s space needs. Ferris and Hoke Schools Superintendent Dr. Debra Dowless and other administrators were there to give answers.
Going by the numbers: the 16 separate buildings currently on the Gibson side of the campus would be replaced by a single two-story building with one main entrance, 64 classrooms, a learning commons/media center, a cafeteria and a large gymnasium with seating for up to 2,300 people.
“It’s going to be all indoor, all enclosed,” Ferris explained. The gym is “probably the largest we’ve ever designed on a high school,” he said.
The building would also have collaborative learning spaces, administrative space and offices.
The roughly 144,000 square-foot new building would have space for about 1,200 students. With the MacDonald side able to hold about 1,500 students, the project would take Hoke High up to a capacity of around 2,700.
Right now Hoke High School has a capacity of about 1,600 students, which is already exceeded: the high school has about 2,000 students attending classes this year, Dowless said. School officials project the high school will have an enrollment of about 2,400 by the 2030 school year. That doesn’t take into account the roughly 400 students who are enrolled at SandHoke Early College High School.
As of the most recent proposed design, the new school would be located on the Gibson side where the tennis courts and parking lot are now. Parking would shuffle around to make room, and the tennis courts being moved to a different location on campus. The project would additionally add an outdoor canopy connecting the new and existing buildings on either side of Bethel Road, so students would have cover from rain while moving between the Gibson and MacDonald sides of campus.
The proposed design would just about double the amount of parking on campus from about 250 spaces to more than 500 spaces, with overflow parking for events like football games. After tearing down the existing Gibson side buildings, there would also leave green space for student use or for future expansion at the high school.
“I think you could easily increase the size of this building by 30 percent, which is a lot,” Ferris said. The school district owns the field that runs almost to Harris Avenue, leaving more space for potential use in the future.
Construction would start during summer vacation but would take place throughout the year while students are in school, officials said. The construction could wrap up in 2025, with Hoke High students starting off the 2025-2026 school year in the new building.
“I always say that schools help transform communities and I believe that. I think this could be a great community school…and to still value the tradition of Hoke County High School,” Dowless said.
The price tag
The project is early enough in the design phase that SFL+A is still looking for ways to cut extra square footage to reduce costs and size.
“Any square footage that we can cut out we will do that to try and get the square footage down, and then of course the next exercise is how do we save money on the cost per square footage. We’re going through all of those exercises right now,” Ferris said. “By the time we get to the end of schematic design we should have a pretty good number and a strategy for moving forward.”
The contractor is busy running cost estimates on the numbers for the project right now and should have a better idea of the cost soon, but Ferris couldn’t provide commissioners with an estimate Monday. He did say that the initial cost came back “a little high.”
Several commissioners raised questions about that, and spoke to concerns about how inflation could be affecting the cost. Commissioners voted earlier this year to agree to provide $28 million in local funding for the project, to go along with the $50 million in grant money from the state education lottery’s new school construction fund. While the required match grant was only five percent, or about $2.5 million, the board added another $25.5 million to that.
However, Commission Vice Chairman Tony Hunt pointed out, the board hasn’t decided where that money is coming from, or what it could mean in terms of increased taxes for Hoke County property owners. Hunt said he thought the county should go ahead and put the $2.5 million in a budget ordinance, but that he wanted to be cautious about committing to anything beyond that before finding out what the Local Government Commission will say — specifically, whether the county can incur that debt without raising taxes.
“The rest of the money will all be determined once we go to the LGC and they tell us what it’s going to take, or (financial firm) Davenport tells us what it’s going to take for us to provide the 20-some million to make it up to the $78 million. I’ve seen these models come back where it’s a three or five cent tax increase, so we need to get on the ground running with that just to know what that number’s going to look like and what it’s going to require for this board to get to that number, because that’s going to count a lot on where we’re going…cause it takes three votes to raise taxes,” Hunt said. “People are going to have to know what skin they’re going to have to put in the game if this project’s going to be exactly what we’re looking at it to be right here.”
Commission Chairman Allen Thomas said that the county will provide the $28 million, but also said he had concerns about how much inflation could affect the final price tag. The project has a 12 percent inflation cost buffer factored in, but the architect firm wasn’t able to say yet how much of that has already been called into play due to rising costs.
“I think we’re all on the same page about making sure we can hold up our end of the bargain, we’re this deep in, so I imagine the majority of this board is willing to do what we need to do to make this happen,” Thomas said.
Commissioner James Leach expressed during the meeting that although the commission is involved in the funding, the final design of the new school building is up to the school board, not the commissioners. And, he said, the county and school board need to quickly get on the same page in terms of the cash flow for the project so the county finance department can make sure all the right paperwork is in place. Otherwise, it could cause trouble for the county’s annual audit down the road.
“At some point, X amount of dollars from the county and the schools need to be appropriated. Those conversations need to start very quickly…that money has to be budgeted so that we don’t have any findings with the state and the Local Government Commission,” Leach said.
Dowless said the school board had a meeting scheduled and will get things moving.
“We’ve talked to our auditor so that will be our next conversation,” she said.
Ferris said after the meeting that before inflation began rising last year, a new high school in North Carolina could cost anywhere from $60 million to $150 million depending on factors like the size, capacity and programs it would need to house.
Going by student capacity, not square footage, the proposed replacement building for Hoke High is the largest high school project SFL+A has ever designed, Ferris said.
Bethel Road closure
The preliminary design plan hinges on whether the Raeford City Council votes to close part of Bethel Road. The section of Bethel Road that runs through the campus would be permanently closed in order to make a loop with a canopy-covered walkway for dropping off students. The other ends of Bethel Road would remain open, but it would no longer be possible to drive through campus.
“School safety is very important, and with this new building and all the students that are going to be on that side of the road, we really need to close Bethel Road if at all possible,” Ferris said.
First responders such as firefighters and police would still be able to access the area, though, by a loop that would be built around the school as a fire access road.
The city council heard the proposal at a called meeting Monday evening, which was held directly after the commissioners’ resumed meeting. After hearing concerns from residents who live near the high school, council members asked SFL+A to look at different options with the goal of reducing traffic congestion. The council ended up not taking a vote on the matter Monday.
Traffic flow for student drop-offs and pick-ups was the big problem for a number of residents who live in the neighborhood off of Bethel Road. Several people who live near the high school told city council that as things stand now, it can take 45 minutes to get in or out of their driveways because of parents’ cars lined up along Bethel Road as they wait to drop off or pick up their children. And when traffic is moving, people speed through the area, multiple residents said.
Ferris and school district officials said they hope the new design will actually alleviate some of that congestion because the proposed drop-off loop would have two lanes going in one direction, and would be large enough to allow many cars to wait without backing traffic up down Bethel Road. Some residents still weren’t convinced, and put forward a different idea: adding a long road or driveway to run alongside Bethel Road, going straight into the new planned parking lot and making that traffic bypass the bottleneck.
The council will review possible new options at its meeting in October, and could take a vote on whether or not to close part of Bethel Road at that time, Mayor John K. McNeill said.
Safety a priority
Safety is a big priority the school district and architect firm have in mind while designing the new building, officials said.
“When you look at this project, it’s really about safety,” the superintendent said. “There are many, many safety-filled features built into this when you’re coming off of a campus that has 16 individual buildings, so that is a huge focus for us as well as being able to maintain all of our programming that we offer.”
Rather than having students walking outside between the 16 buildings on the Gibson side of campus to get to class, they would be inside a single building with one main entrance.
“Right now you have multiple buildings that are all open, right,” Ferris said in answer to a question from Commissioner Lonnie Baldwin. “The doors open directly to the outside in many cases. So what we’re doing is we’re really consolidating the campus…we’re reducing 16 buildings down to one on the side where the stadium is. So from a safety perspective, that’s good. And then we have all of the students coming in the main entrance.”
While the main entrance would be unlocked for students’ arrival, it and all other exterior doors would be locked from the outside during the school day.
“Whether you ride a bus or a car, everyone will come in that single entrance,” Ferris said.
Anyone seeking to come into the building after school starts would have to go through the reception area and main lobby to access the school – a design similar to some of the newer schools already in Hoke County. Teachers would have a key fob to give them access from the back door of the building.
The large space of the entryway would also make it easier for school administrators to set up metal detectors to screen students as they come into school in the morning, if that’s a route they want to take, Ferris said.
Furthermore, the interior of the building would have several sets of emergency doors that could close at the push of a button, locking down the school.
“If there’s an intruder in the school, someone with a gun, the receptionist – because you have to go through that receptionist area – the receptionist would hit a button and the school would go into lockdown mode,” Ferris said. That way the locked doors would prevent someone from accessing the classroom wing.
The school also has student resource officers, who are deputies with the sheriff’s office on campus during the school day.
Two high schools
Thomas asked Dowless a question that, as he said, has been asked of school officials many times over the past decade.
“Why would we put these type of resources to expand Hoke County High School instead of building an additional high school somewhere else in the county?” he asked the superintendent.
The answer Dowless gave was also the same answer school leaders have given for years.
“That is a question we get quite frequently, and as I said earlier, part of what makes Hoke County Schools unique is what we offer our students. When you think about trying to build a separate school somewhere else, you are basically going to be cutting your staff in half,” she said. “The only allocation that we would get for a new school would be a principal. So, all the programs that we have set up at Hoke County High School, HVAC, drones, plumbing, all of those, we would have to start choosing who goes where.
“We would have to start selecting, this program has to go there, this program stays here. What we want to do is make sure that all of our students have access to all of those career pathways, because you never know what a student is going to opt for. We feel like we can do that by having this on-site replacement.”
Also, regardless of what happens with any additional high school, there needed to be changes made at Hoke High, Dowless said.
“The safety components at Hoke County High School are problematic. It is a large campus with a lot of separate buildings. We have worked in several features, we have added in security monitors, but in order to make sure that that is a safe campus, doing something like this is necessary,” she said.
Projected numbers also show that the on-site replacement should meet the high school needs for at least 10 years, the superintendent said.
Though, as Dowless noted later at the city council meeting, a second high school in Hoke County is not impossible.
“I don’t think it’s unrealistic to expect that somewhere down the road, someday there probably will be another high school,” she said. “Right now what we’re looking at is trying to solve a growth issue that’s been going on probably the last 10 years, doing it as efficient and economically as we can, but that buys us a good 10 or 12 years…we recognize we’ll also be looking at an elementary school to absorb some of the growth as well.”