LAURINBURG — Scotland commissioners gave unanimous approval on Monday to “moving forward” with a proposed consolidation of county schools. But officials were quick to add that the county retains the ability to halt the plan if it is found to be too expensive or unworkable.
The plan includes closing several district schools and upgrading Sycamore Lane and Laurel Hill. The district would also build a new school. Initial estimates had the project costing a total of about $41 million.
County Manager Kevin Patterson said Monday night that a new estimate for the entire project put the price tag closer to $35.1 million.
There are several financing alternatives for building the new elementary school, including through general obligation bonds, limited obligation bonds, USDA loans and operating a lease structure, also called a Net Zero building. The earliest a general obligation referendum could be held is would be March 2018.
Another option would be a limited obligation bond that does not require voter approval, but it has a slightly higher interest rate. A USDA loan is a less common alternative with a 40-year payout. It comes with a lower annual cost in debt service but has total cost with more interest.
The Public Private Partnership is relatively new as a financing structure where a developer would construct the building, take care of the financing and enter into an operating lease with the school district equal to the debt service over a period of time. After year five, there would be the option to purchase the building.
Patterson said that Public Private Partnership option should be nixed because it is too expensive.
The next step in the process will be meeting with the Local Government Commission on Oct. 27. Commissioners also authorized Patterson to hire an architect to aid with that preliminary meeting with state officials. The cost of the architect would be deducted from the project’s budget.
Before the vote, Commissioner Clarence McPhatter questioned how the county might influence the location of a new school school if it had already given its approval.
“That’s like putting the buggy before the horse,” he said.
School officials have not decided where the new school might be placed, but McPhatter said he would like it located on “the north side.”
Commissioner Guy McCook said there would likely be a site committee to help find a location. He said the committee of six to eight members would include commissioners, school board members and the public.
Patterson also assured commissioners that Monday’s vote only gives permission to move forward with the planning process.
“We are not issuing any debt,” Carol McCall, board chairman, said. “We’re telling the school board to go forward, but to come back to us and come back again and again.”
When the board opened the meeting for the public to speak, Laurinburg Mayor Matthew Block told commissioners that they need to find out if residents support consolidation. He said an informal survey conducted in the I.E Johnson and North Laurinburg school districts with about 91 respondents found that 100 percent of those polled were against closing city schools.
Block added that the only reason that more people have not voiced their opposition to county commissioners is because “they don’t feel listened to.”
“Why would you consider doing something that citizens don’t want?” Block said. “There doesn’t seem to be a rationale for it.”
Brian Gainey, a candidate for school board, also expressed his opposition to consolidation during the public comment portion.
“As a voter and a taxpayer … I think consolidation should be stopped completely,” Gainey said. “Consolidation has been flawed from the start.”
He said schools should be community oriented and the time that students will be transported on buses — up to 90 minutes in some cases —to new schools is too long. He said he was also worried about construction costs.
But McCall said both school and county officials have given the project much consideration.
“There was no rush to judgment,” she said. “There were a lot of questions asked and we have spent time studying the numbers. We have put a lot of effort, time and thought into this and it is just step one.”
The school consolidation plan is based on a capacity study performed in 2014 that showed that Scotland County’s middle schools and several elementary schools were underpopulated.
“If it turns out to be a bad idea, I will be first one to say don’t do it,” Commissioner Whit Gibson said. “But I think it can be a real good decision for students and for education, but help the county as a whole.”
Also on Monday, the board voted to accept the retirement plans of Clerk to the Board Ann Kurtzman, who announced she will leave on Feb. 1, 2017.
In other business, commissioners adopted a resolution on the Scotland County Comprehensive Transportation Plan. It will be used as a guide in the development of the transportation system in Scotland County over the next 30 years.
The commissioners also voted to:
— Approve Public Works request to surplus a 1994 GMC roll off truck and a 2009 Chevrolet Colorado pick-up truck.
— Approve a request by the Scotland County Sheriff’s Office to surplus about 40 Smith & Wesson guns and several shotguns that are rusted and need replacing.
— Approve budget amendment for the Scotland County Memorial Library to carryover of donated funds from FY 2016 in the amount of $500 for the purchase of children’s books.
— Approve budget amendment for the receipt of a grant for $2,261.34 for Summer Food service site inspections.
Reach Scott Witten at 910-506-3023