School board halts Hoke High project

By Catharin Shepard • Editor • After hitting the brakes on a plan for a replacement building on the Hoke High campus, the school board voted last week to consider building a second high school at a cost of $110 million – but it’s not clear yet whether the district can use its $50 million in state grant funds for a second high school, and commissioners raised concerns over whether the county could come up with the other $60 million.

One thing is certain: despite rumors in the community, there is no plan to completely tear down Hoke High School, Hoke Board of Education Chairwoman Angela Southerland said.

“That was never the case,” she clarified this week.

Southerland explained her position on the matter, saying that the reason the board changed from considering the replacement building, to considering building a second high school was due to safety concerns at Hoke High.

“What changed is, I feel, as the majority feel, that it’s too many kids at that high school, and for safety reasons we just feel that a second high school in a different location would be much better and much safer,” she said. “As we all know, this community is growing. It’s growing a lot on the east side of the county. We just see that in the near future, if we continue to build at the old high school, it’s going to be more students at the high school and for safety reasons it’s not going to be good.”

The school board and Hoke County Board of Commissioners met last Wednesday evening in a joint meeting focused on the high school project. SFL+A architect Robbie Ferris presented several possible options for building a second high school in the county.

The options included a 600-student high school for a cost of $87 million; a 1,000-student high school at a cost of $110 million; or a 1,500-student high school for $156 million. A fourth option, dismissed by both boards, proposed to tear down Hoke High School and build one new “super high school” with a capacity of 2,500 students for all of Hoke County, at a cost of $195 million.

Several of the commissioners expressed doubts, or outright stated the county can’t afford to pay for the increased cost. The county budgeted $28 million to add to $50 million in state grant funds to provide a total of about $78 million for the now-paused previous plan of constructing one large building on the Gibson side of Hoke High’s campus.

Commissioner Tony Hunt said he was in favor of sticking with the original budget for the project.

“We have already budgeted the project. We budgeted the project for our cost…our financial analysis, everything we can stand and afford at this time looking into the next five years. We had financial analysis done, we hired Davenport to do all of that for us, an independent firm, and they said ‘you can stand to put this much money’ and that’s how we got the $28 million for this project,” Hunt said. “The issue is, is that we’ve already committed what we’re going to commit. It’s $28 million, that’s what we’ve committed to the high school. Now you can go out and look for other money…but every day you leave it on hold, the cost goes up because of inflation.

“As far as I’m concerned, that’s where our budget is at, it’s at $78 million. Any other option that comes up other than $78 million, it’s a no for me,” Hunt said.

Commission Chairman Allen Thomas said the county couldn’t ask taxpayers to bear what he guessed might amount to a 15 or 20-cent tax increase.

“Can we be completely frank? The county is not going to be able to fund $195 million without breaking the backs of our people,” he said, referring to the highest-cost option that was ultimately dismissed by both boards.

“We are the ones who have the authority to raise taxes, and it is not an authority we take lightly. We’ve not raised taxes, we’ve cut taxes,” Thomas said.

Question of grant funds

A last-minute email from a grant manager at the North Carolina Department of Instruction (NC DPI) threw a curveball of uncertainty into the conversation just hours before the meeting. The email the school district received around 3 p.m. last Wednesday, appeared to suggest that the district may not be able to use the $50 million in grant funding originally awarded for the replacement project at Hoke High to instead build a second high school. That was possibly due to the reasons the county got the grant in the first place – part of which was a plan to tear down old modular classrooms and build a new self-contained building on the Gibson side, officials discussed.

If the school district can’t apply the $50 million in grant funding to building a second high school, the entire cost for the $110 million project would have to come from elsewhere if the school board wanted to proceed without the grant money.

There appeared to be some confusion among elected officials about the purpose of the meeting, at first. Thomas clarified at the time that he had asked for the joint meeting in early January to get on the same page as the school board. However, after the meeting progressed, several board members said they felt the project wasn’t far enough along to be a matter for the county to decide. The commissioners adjourned their meeting, and the school board continued with its meeting solo until the members took a unanimous vote on pursuing the $110 million option.

Waiting on information

The school board chairwoman said Tuesday that the district understands that a big dollar increase for the project might not be immediately feasible for the county to pay. The school system could potentially look into applying for more grant funds in the next few years, Southerland said.

“We know that nothing is going to happen overnight. As Robbie (Ferris) said we can always go back and apply for another grant, even If they say no,” she said.

If the state does not allow the $50 million in grant funds to go toward a second high school, the school district may instead move forward with the original plan of building a replacement on the Gibson side of campus, Southerland said.

“If they say no, then we’re going to go ahead and move with that plan. We understand if a grant is written for specific things, then that grant is written for a specific thing,” she said.

The school district has already spent about $3 million on the design and other work for the replacement project at Hoke High, officials said at the meeting. The Raeford City Council voted to close part of Bethel Road – the second that runs through the campus – as part of those plans. Delays on the project could add to the total cost due to inflation.

As things stand the district is awaiting word from Ferris, who planned to approach DPI this week about the feasibility of using the grant money for a second high school instead of the originally planned replacement at Hoke High. The superintendent was coordinating with Ferris to arrange a meeting for the school board members too, Southerland said.

Thomas reiterated in a statement Tuesday that the county would not be able to immediately move forward with a large increase in the budget for the high school project. A project of that scope would require what he called “the largest tax hike in our county’s history.”

“We are committed to working with the elected school board to meet the needs of our children. Hopefully the Board of Commissioners clarified during the joint meeting that it is impossible to go from planning a $78 million project to a $150 million project with such short notice,” he said. “Without notice and proper planning, the only way we would be able to fund such a substantial project would be to implement the largest tax hike in our county’s history. With inflation going up, people are hurting enough already.

“But let me be clear,” he continued, “(we) see a path to building a new high school. That path involves the school board bringing us a short-term capital needs plan so that we can set aside money each year as we prepare to meet their needs. A second high school is coming. Together, we will make it happen.”

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