Superintendent of schools Barry Shepherd said there's a need for at least five new schools within Cabarrus County Schools' system but because student growth and the economy have slowed, officials are looking for alternative solutions.
Shepherd and school board members recently took a tour of more than a half dozen area schools to help them prioritize the system's five-year facilities plan. Some facilities are 40- to 70-plus years old and at least one doesn't have access to water in some parts of its building.
School board members say the proactive approach allowed them a chance to see the facilities first-hand to better assess conditions and brainstorm solutions. County commissioners say it will be at least five years before funding for new construction will be approved.
Top-priority schools in major need of repairs, renovations or other improvements include Central Cabarrus High School, Coltrane Webb Elementary, the Glenn Center, Long Preschool, Mount Pleasant's middle and high schools and R. Brown McAllister Elementary. During another tour scheduled Feb. 4, board members will visit other schools in need of repairs, including Beverly Hills Elementary, Concord High, Northwest Middle, Northwest High and Royal Oaks Elementary.
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"We are very cognizant of the condition of the economy and the fact there are families in need that would not need to see additional revenues generated for school facilities, and I would be very understanding of that," said Shepherd. "I also think we need to keep in mind that there are students sitting in classrooms and schools that I have concerns about the quality of the environment. Some of these schools are rather old, and I think all students in Cabarrus County deserve to be in schools and facilities that are conducive to learning."
Holly Blackwelder is a Concord resident and school board member since 2004. She's also been a licensed general contractor since 1999 through her family business Blackwelder & Associates Inc. She recommended board members take the tour. Her son has graduated from the Cabarrus school system, but she has a grandchild and nieces and nephews in the system.
"We actually saw the buildings first-hand, and some of the things that you see on paper cannot begin to describe what is really going on in certain facilities," she said. "We are at a place where our schools are not exactly where they could be with all students being inside the brick-and-mortar buildings, so we're looking at what we can live with until the next phase takes place."
Future changes, which could be implemented as early as spring, are geared toward making the learning environment better. Facilities with the most needs will be given priority, said Blackwelder, and repurposing spaces within existing facilities or renovating older facilities will give the system a chance to do less new construction.
"I have high expectations of what we can do for our schools, and I want to see us do bigger and better things," said Blackwelder. "Remodeling, renovations and restructuring is not as warm and fuzzy as when you talk about increasing the graduation rate or student achievements, so this is probably the least appealing part for students and parents because it's structural. I think parents and students really tend to focus on what's going on inside with their kids but without the changes, or without a good facility, changes inside can't progress as quickly."
Cabarrus County Schools is just one of North Carolina's 115 school systems - all of which are preparing for significant budget cuts from the state. School systems also receive funding from federal and local governments. CCS is developing a budget for the 2011-2012 school year with those state cuts in mind.
"The budget committee is looking at scenarios that reflect 5-10 percent funding cuts from the state, which would equal between $6.6 and $13 million," said public relations director Ronnye Boone. "Federal funding for K through 12 public education also will be affected by the expiration of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds (federal stimulus money), which are set to expire at the end of this school year. The committee is in the process of evaluating areas/items to cut,' she said. "Before that happens, the public will have an opportunity to comment on the budget during a public hearing in March."
Shepherd said the school system was growing at a rate of 1,200 students per year before the economy slumped, and the tour gave board members a chance look at schools that are either in need of replacement or refurbishments.
"That's an additional school per year and, typically, those new schools are in the communities where families are moving so you have a concentration of newer facilities in the new communities," he said. "But then the communities that are well-established have facilities that have been there for 50 years or more and those facilities can go unnoticed.
"I think we have a good number of facilities that are in need of replacement, and I think that ultimately it will take either local funds or... some support from state bond referendums to generate funding for these facilities.," Shepherd said.