Four years ago, $73 million seemed like plenty to pay for the Lincoln Center Campus and Chapel Hill High School construction projects.
But skyrocketing construction costs, driven by a building boom in the Triangle region, has the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools scrambling to find what could end up being an additional $20 million to pay for the high school project.
The board recently got a look at two options to deal with the high construction costs, which could push the two projects nearly $30 million over the $73 million that voters approved for them in the 2016 bond referendum.
Whatever is decided will have a big impact on district families for years to come, particularly as it relates to school crowding. The state mandate for smaller class sizes take hold for elementary schools next year. Both projects will increase capacity throughout the school district.
“This is our only plan right now for an elementary-school capacity increase,” Bill Mullin, executive director of facilities, told the school board last week. “We didn’t figure on new schools or anything. This is it.”
Under the first option, the one that staff recommended at last week’s meeting, the school district would proceed with the Lincoln Center Campus renovation at a cost of $36.8 million, which is a little more than $10 million over the projected cost of $25 million set four years ago.
District officials have identified nearly $8 million on top of $28 million in bond money to come up with the $36.8 million needed for the Lincoln Center Campus project. About $5.6 million would come from fund balances and other sources and another $2.4 million would come from unallocated capital funds.
The Lincoln Center Campus project includes new buildings for pre-K classrooms and Phoenix Academy, the district’s alternative school.
This is our only plan right now for an elementary-school capacity increase. ... This is it.
Bill Mullin, executive director of facilities
Officials said moving forward with the project would give the district its long-awaited, centralized pre-kindergarten center for 189 students. Once operating, the center would free up classroom space in crowded elementary schools.
“We get the great benefit of having our centralized pre-K that we’ve been talking about for years,” Mullin said. “It also gives us an immediate increase in elementary capacity of 189 seats that would be vacated in permanent buildings throughout the district.”
Mullin said the project would also free up eight mobile units the school district could re-purpose.
Also under the option, high school capacity would increase by 90 students with the expansion of Phoenix Academy.
The school board has until late December to accept the bids for the Lincoln Center project. If it does not, the project will have to be rebid.
“Based on all the information we have received over the last month, I can say that the present bid is probably as good as it gets,” Mullin said.
The big down side to the first option is that it would only leave about $44 million for the high school project. That project includes two new academic wings, renovations to the cultural center and gym and cafeteria buildings and site improvements.
If the bids for the Lincoln Center Campus project is a guide, the high school renovation project will cost an estimated $64 million.
“We’re still looking at $20 million gap at Chapel Hill High School,” school board Chairman James Barrett said in an interview.
Four years ago, the cost for the high school improvements were estimated at $48 million.
The second option on the table for the school board is to defer a decision until bids for the high school project are opened next spring.
If the board decided to fully fund the high school project, it would only have about $10 million for improvements to the Lincoln Center building and other smaller projects throughout the district if the $64 million estimate for the high school project is accurate.
District officials won’t know exactly how much over the $48 million original budget estimate the project will be until bids are received sometime in April, but they expect them to be $18 million to $20 million over initial projection.
A recent N.C. Department of Public Instruction bid analysis of the Triangle area school construction costs show a 60 percent increase since 2013.
The high school project would increase capacity at the school by 105 students, but the extra elementary school seats would be lost if the pre-kindergarten project is abandoned.
Barrett said the board hopes to soon schedule a meeting with Orange County commissioners to discuss the two options and to possibly identify other sources of money for the projects.
Officials said reducing the scope of the high school project by even $10 million would mean a major redesign of the project. One suggestion involved putting off the planned renovation of the auditorium and building B.
“It has to be a contingency,” said school board member Joal Broun. “We live in the environment where the amount of public money available for capital funds for large school projects is limited and very tight.”