As the deadline to finalize the county budget approaches, Buncombe commissioners huddled with staff June 4 to make decisions on two new Asheville city school buildings.
The most recent estimated cost to build a new Isaac Dickson Elementary school building is $20.2 million, while a new Asheville Middle School facility would be $41.5 million, reported County Manager Wanda Greene.
In March, she asked the school system to bring construction costs down from an original proposal that put the total price tag for both schools at about $65 million. But after a value engineer analyzed the Dickson plan, the most recent estimate actually went up by about $2 million — to a total of $20.2 million — Greene told the commissioners.
The estimate dropped for the middle school project, going from about $47 million to $41.5 million. However, design details are about a year away from being final for that project, whereas the Dickson plans are nearly complete, she said.
Financing both projects at the same time would be prohibitively expensive, Greene told the commissioners. And after a lengthy lunchtime discussion, commissioners instructed her to plan on funding the Dickson project now, while tentatively delaying the middle school project until 2018.
A vote on the capital plan is scheduled for June 25; if approved, it would mean construction would likely begin on the Dickson facility in early 2014, with students moving to a temporary facility at the Randolf Learning Center in Montford halfway through the school year, said Greene.
If the school system is able to reduce costs for the new middle school below the current estimate, the county could accelerate the timeline, financing construction before 2018, noted Greene.
"I'd hate for the Asheville Middle School kids to get started so late," cautioned board Chair David Gantt. Commissioner Joe Belcher worried that if the middle school project is delayed, construction costs and interest rates could go up. But Greene emphasized that the county couldn't afford to pay $41.5 million for the new middle school for several years, if commissioners chose to move forward with financing the elementary school. Vice Chair Holly Jones urged Greene to emphasize to school officials that "the more money you save, the quicker the timeline."
Meanwhile, commissioners also instructed Greene to try to negotiate a deal with school officials that would direct any money saved from increased efficiencies at the new buildings toward paying back the debt. Architectural plans call for a variety of features that are likely to save energy costs, including geothermal heating/cooling, solar water and electricity arrays, natural lighting and more.
If the school system gives that savings back to the county to help pay back the debt for the buildings, "that would be great skin in the game," said Jones.
The budget proposal for 2013-14 fiscal year, which begins July 1, already calls for raising the property tax rate by roughly 15 percent. And anticipating possible concerns over the cost of the new schools from county residents, Commissioner David King said, "Everyone has to understand, we're not bailing out the city schools. ... We're providing schools for county residents, who happen to live in the city."
State law places county governments in charge of funding the capital needs of all public schools within their borders, regardless of which system they fall in.
Meanwhile, despite expressing disappointment that the cost of Dickson is higher than the county had hoped, Jones, who has been pushing for new buildings for years, expressed enthusiasm for the projects overall.
"We're on the edge of getting these two schools happening, and this is awesome," she exclaimed. "I think we can get there."
For more on this issue, see Xpress' previous coverage here.