11/11/18 With bonds passed, planning begins

With bonds passed, planning begins
ABSS, ACC finalizing priorities for school construction next year
By Jessica Williams, The Times-News 11/11/18    
Reprinted with permission.      

As the 2018 election results trickled in, Todd Thorpe felt a mix of excitement and fear.

The Alamance-Burlington School System’s $150 million bond issue passed in a landslide — a difference of 20,909 votes, according to unofficial results. And as the Assistant Superintendent for Operations, Thorpe will oversee how and when that money is spent.

“I was sitting, actually, in my recliner watching it on the webpage,” he said. “And when I realized that it had passed, one, there was a lot of excitement, because it’s bringing new things into Alamance County — and when I say ‘new things’ I mean new ability for us to educate children in a more comfortable environment. And two, there was a little sense of fear. It’s a lot of money to be accountable for with a lot of projects.”

Broken down, $80 million will fund renovations and additions at the district’s six high schools and Pleasant Grove and South Mebane Elementary Schools. The other $70 million will build a new high school in the eastern portion of the county.

That’s the soundbite Alamance residents have heard and read over the last 10 months. The reality of getting it all done is going to be far more complex.

Right now, Thorpe is focusing on step one.

In the next few days, he’ll be putting out an RFQ, which stands for Request for Qualifications. Simply put, it’s a call for an architectural design firm.

“This is the opportunity for the firm to tell us who they are, their qualifications, their success, provide the staff credentials, references and projects completed,” Thorpe said.

Responses are due after winter break.

Once they’re in, the board of education will consider their options and, hopefully, approve a design team by late February or early March.

Once that team is hired, the firm will have to spend a good chunk of time reassessing what work needs to be done at the current schools.

Some problem areas have been addressed in the time since Moseley Architects did the initial facilities study at the tail end of 2017, like the roofs at Cummings High School.

Thorpe hopes by this time next year, they’ll be “moving some dirt,” though he isn’t sure which projects will come first and how much will be done at one time. That depends on the design process and the county’s plan for funding.

Construction on the new high school is farther out since it involves a more involved design process on top of finding and purchasing land.

Thorpe expects they’ll break ground in 2020, placing the projected opening date in the fall of 2020 at the earliest.

Alamance Community
College

ACC is getting started on the work listed under its $39.6 million bond issue, as well.

The money is slated to build a new Biotechnology Center of Excellence, Public Safety Training Center, Student Services Learning and Development Center and 400-space multilevel parking deck.

It will also allow the college to renovate classrooms, update technology, expand and upgrade the current childcare facility and establish two satellite locations in the eastern and western portions of the county, increasing access for students who don’t live near the main campus in Graham.

President Algie Gatewood said Friday, Nov. 9, that he was thrilled with the vote of confidence from the county.

“Please allow me to take this opportunity to thank the community; I am extremely gratified by their support for the College,” Gatewood wrote in an email exchange. “I am also gratified that the community recognizes the valuable investment they have made in their own future. The investment in education pays the highest dividend. This investment will promote 21st century workforce training, job growth, and recruitment of new industry.”

With the official go-ahead, they’ll begin the process of hiring architecture and construction firms as well as collaborating with experts in the fields of public safety and life sciences to get their input on how the bond issue’s two largest projects — the Biotechnology Center of Excellence and Public Safety Training Center — should be constructed.

By this time next year, he hopes to be nearing the start of that construction.

Funding


Now that the bond issues have passed, ABSS and ACC will have to work with the county on the actual selling of the bonds.

These are generally exempt from being taxed by the feds, which makes them pretty appealing to investors who will make a profit when the county pays them back with interest.

That means there’s going to be a property tax increase at some point. The latest estimate was an additional 7 or 8 cents, which would bring the county’s current 59-cent rate up to the 60s.

To offset that, the county placed a quarter-cent sales tax increase on the ballot, estimating that it would generate an additional $4.8 million per year and lower the necessary property tax increase to 4 cents, but the referendum failed by 4,664 votes.

“It was kind of shocking,” Thorpe said. “I assumed that the sales tax would pass in order to help pay for the bonds, but the citizens had a different opinion — which is fine. And this may come back up at another point in the future.”

County Manager Bryan Hagood said, Saturday, he plans to update the county commissioners on bond funding at the meeting on Monday, Nov. 19. From there he’ll meet with ABSS and ACC staff to talk processes and timelines.

Though specifics are still being worked out, it’s clear the commissioners — and the taxpayers — are going to want to see evidence that every penny of bond money is being spent on what the school system and college said they’d spend it on.

Transparency is a No. 1 priority for both.

“That’s one thing that we’ve worked on a lot with [Hagood] and his team and those conversations will really get rich now,” Thorpe said. “How do we stage projects so we can sell bonds and get the best interest rates? And how can we be accountable for every nickel, because we all know once we start project there will be change orders, there will be contingency funds, and we’re going to have to dip into them. All projects end up there at some point. But we’re going to be very transparent on where every nickel [goes] that the taxpayers were so willing to give us, to say that we could improve our schools. That will be a big portion of the conversations that take place.”

Right now, those conversations are only beginning.