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Commissioners question price tag of replacing E.E. Smith High School

Estimates reflect rising construction costs, school district officials say


Members of the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday questioned the price tag estimated for replacing E.E. Smith High School.

The new 254,479-square-foot facility would accommodate 1,600 students.

Kevin Coleman, associate superintendent of auxiliary services, has estimated the new school would cost $159.5 million.

Coleman, accompanied by Superintendent Marvin Connelly Jr. and Associate Superintendent of Business Operations Jay Toland, told the commissioners that the cost of construction materials and other necessities has “skyrocketed” since the $90 million estimates of before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Connelly said the school would serve students from Cumberland County and Fort Bragg. The military post has agreed to lease the county about 100 acres for 50 years at a cost of $1. Connelly said the lease would be renewable after the first 50 years.

The site is on Honeycutt Road across from the entrance to Simmons Army Airfield. Coleman said the per-square-foot cost for construction would be about $350, compared to the $295 estimate prior to the pandemic.

However, Commissioner Jimmy Keefe said he doubts those figures, saying he had done his own research. According to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s school planning website, the average cost of building a school in North Carolina is closer to $83.3 million, Keefe said. But that estimate would be in 2020 dollars.

Keefe noted that the March 2020 construction bid for West Charlotte High School at 310,200 square feet came in at $78.8 million.

“I support a new high school. It’s long overdue. But there’s not a single high school in North Carolina that has been approved for over $100 million,” he said. “I want this to happen, but I can’t imagine $160 million.”

Coleman assured the board that the cost estimates are based on what other counties and school systems are paying for new construction. Connelly said sharing those cost estimates with the commissioners allows the school and county board to decide what they can afford.

Board Vice Chairman Glenn Adams also questioned the Fort Bragg lease proposal, suggesting instead that Fort Bragg give the land to the county. Leasing the land from Fort Bragg would not allow other uses of the school property, such as building affordable housing around the school or other commercial developments that would spur economic growth.

Adams pointed to the W.T. Brown school, also built on Fort Bragg-owned land, as an example.

“School closes at 3.30 p.m., and nothing else happens around there,” he said.

Although he agreed with Keefe’s concern about the cost estimates, Adams said the board needs to move forward.

“We’ve been kicking the can down the road on this for a while,” he said.

Commissioner Jeanette Council asked for periodic updates on the E.E. Smith replacement project. Chairwoman Toni Stewart asked the board members present if there was a consensus to move forward on the project.

Keefe responded, “At that number ($160 million), no.”

Present at the meeting were Commissioners Marshall Faircloth, Jeanette Council, Toni Stewart, Glenn Adams, and Jimmy Keefe. Commissioners Veronica Jones and Michael Boose did not attend.

The presentation, according to Assistant County Manager Brian Haney, was an update for the board and is not scheduled on an upcoming meeting agenda.

The board also heard presentations from Michael Gibson, director of Fayetteville-Cumberland County Parks & Recreation, asking for $350,000 for the Orange Street School restoration project. The county’s share would pay for furniture, appliances, technology and recording equipment, as well as “miscellaneous” equipment.

Once the school restoration is finished, Gibson hopes to use the building for cultural arts and STEM-based programs outside a traditional school setting. The commissioners unanimously agreed to place the issuevon its March 20 meeting agenda.

The commissioners also agreed to place the county’s employee health insurance benefits on the agenda for March 20 after hearing recommendations from representatives of USI Insurance Services. The county’s health insurance costs are continuing to rise, and USI representatives recommend a minimal increase in employee contributions to the plan, as well as entertaining other cost-cutting measures such as using drug discount coupons at pharmacies; eliminating “higher cost wasteful medications”; and initiating a $50 copay for specialist medical providers.

The recommendations will be on the board’s March 20 agenda at a meeting scheduled for 6:45 p.m. in Room 118 of the Cumberland County Courthouse.

Finally, County Manager Clarence Grier — who began his job Monday — removed a discussion of rules of procedure from the agenda because Commissioners Michael Boose — who requested the refresher — and Veronica Jones were absent.

Cumberland County, E.E. Smith High School, Board of Education