Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools officials say Triangle construction cost increases could add another $15 million to $20 million to a $52.4 million plan to renovate and rebuild parts of Chapel Hill High School (pictured in this artist’s rendering). Artist’s rendering Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools officials say Triangle construction cost increases could add another $15 million to $20 million to a $52.4 million plan to renovate and rebuild parts of Chapel Hill High School (pictured in this artist’s rendering). Artist’s rendering Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools

Orange County

Rising building costs leave Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools projects in deep hole

By Tammy Grubb

tgrubb@heraldsun.com

October 18, 2017 12:00 PM

UPDATED October 18, 2017 05:52 PM

CHAPEL HILL

A multimillion-dollar cost increase is forcing the city schools to re-evaluate plans for a central preschool and more seats for students, and might add $90 million to taxpayers’ bill for school repairs.

About $160 million in needed work was identified at 10 campuses. District officials planned to start with renovations at Chapel Hill High School and the Lincoln Center campus on South Merritt Mill Road, using $75 million from last year’s voter-approved bond. Other projects would have been funded over the next 10 years.

But bids for the Lincoln Center project came in $10 million over its $22.6 million budget, said Todd LoFrese, assistant superintendent for support services. The Chapel Hill High project, originally pegged at $52 million, could cost another $18 million to $20 million, he said.

The increase reflects a 59 percent hike in Triangle construction costs since 2013, which LoFrese said stems in part from a decline in the number of construction companies since the 2008 recession and an increase in public and private construction projects.

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Todd LoFrese

The school board will discuss its options Nov. 2, which could include scaling back the projects, waiting to renovate Chapel Hill High School, using some of the district’s reserves, or even talking with the county commissioners about how they can help, he said.

The conversation could be difficult, since school district and county budgets have been stretched thin for a few years, their reserves are limited, and the county already shifted some of its own capital projects to balance a big list of wants and needs. The state’s revocation of the county’s impact fees earlier this year also took about $3 million out of the money set aside each year for school construction.

LoFrese alerted the Orange County Board of Commissioners to the problem Tuesday. The board delayed approving $22 million in bond money for the Lincoln Center project, while approving $5 million to reimburse the district for money already spent on design for both of its projects.

If Chapel Hill High School can be renovated within its established budget, the commissioners could approve that bond funding next spring. The architect is aware of the cost constraints, LoFrese said, and will bring his ideas to the school board early next year.

He emphasized that no decisions about what to cut have been made, but both projects are critical, in part, because local schools are already at 98 percent of their capacity.

“From the administration’s perspective, there aren’t many good options,” LoFrese said. “Let’s say you scale back tremendously at the Lincoln Center. We wouldn’t be able to increase capacity across the district, which was one of the big goals not only for that project, but for our other projects as well.”

“Likewise, Chapel Hill High is beyond disrepair. I look at that as our top priority,” he said. “What I would like to see us be able to do is do the projects the right way and not skimp, but at same time I know we have to live within our means.”

Moving up the timeline for the other schools projects won’t help, he said, because those costs also are affected by the increase. The district’s estimated cost of $160 million for all of its needed renovations and repairs is now approaching $250 million, he said.

While it’s unlikely the district will have enough money to cover all its construction needs in the next decade, LoFrese said, there is a silver lining, since the many commercial projects being built will bring in more property and sales tax dollars for the county’s budget.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

What’s next

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro School Board will meet at 7 p.m. Nov. 2 in the Lincoln Center, 750 S. Merritt Mill Road in Chapel Hill.