Fleming outlines school construction plans

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LILLINGTON — Student redistricting and school construction entered 2020 as top priorities for the Harnett County Schools Board of Election.

After listening to public concerns regarding the former earlier this year, HCS Superintendent Dr. Aaron Fleming presented the board with a multi-tiered plan to address the latter at its monthly meeting.

Fleming outlined current and future projects for board members as they continue their efforts to tackle overcrowded campuses across the county.

“I presented a recommendation that I have using some conversations with OREd,” Fleming said.

North Carolina State University’s Operations Research and Education Laboratory (OREd) offers school planning solutions driven by data and supported by policy in order to gain community support, according to its website.

“It’s the board responsibility to determine the order of those projects,” Fleming said. “The tiers can be changed. I think the general position of the board is they agreed with what I was putting out there.”

Erwin Elementary School took another step closer to fruition in the last few weeks as demolition continued at the site in anticipation of a modern facility opening some time last next year. Harnett County Commissioners recently approved a funding request from the board to purchase property off Rollins Road for a new Northwest Harnett Elementary School, which is expected to cost at least $27 million.

“The state requires us to do this every couple of years and we like to do it on even years,” Fleming said. “We anticipate that [$27 million] to go up with inflation. Finding subcontractors right now is very difficult. We do have a jobs issue in America in that we have plenty of jobs open but no one skilled to do them. Finding brick masons, electricians, and mechanical folks is very difficult”

Fleming also included several renovation and construction possibilities at Johnsonville Elementary. One option for $11 million provided a 16-classroom addition and new cafeteria. Another alternative cost $13.3 million and added a new gymnasium to the campus. Fleming identified several other projects as high priority: Southern Harnett Elementary requires cafeteria and classrooms renovations, a new South Harnett/Lillington middle school with a $50 million price tag addresses overcrowding in the area and Highlands Elementary could use a $10 million cafeteria and add classroom buildings expansion.

“The public needs to understand that’s not additional seats [at Highlands],” Board of Education member Bill Morris said.”That’s simply getting rid of the huts and putting children in brick and mortar buildings. We’re not gaining any seats by that.”

Looking a couple years ahead, Fleming said two new high schools in Lillington and Highlands, while needed, would not come cheap. Northern Harnett Primary and Wayne Avenue Elementary need simple renovations in the coming years.

“When you add the land plus the school for the Willow Springs High School in Fuquay-Varina, that was the most expensive high school built in North Carolina,” said Fleming. “No one ever thought there would be a $95 million high school. Now the average across the state is $94 million. I think what we’ve got is solid and will work for a few years,” said Fleming “The further you forecast out the more difficult it is to see.”

In projects listed as more than five years away, Fleming mentioned the need for possibly adding another elementary and middle school in northwest Harnett County and thoroughly renovating or replacing the STAR Academy.

“If you didn’t want to throw money at a renovation project I think at some point we’re going to have to have a discussion as far as renovating this building or building a new campus,” Fleming said. “We know at that point we’re going have to look at a new middle school in the western part of county if the numbers hold true and Ft. Bragg continues to grow.”

Benhaven and Gentry projects offer the school board an avenue to expand services while Fleming said some basic maintenance stations should be addressed as soon as funds become available.

“We’re in desperate need of a new transportation facility,” said Fleming “We need 24 [bus] bays with 12 drive-in bays. Currently we have 5 bays and are way below the state minimum.”

Board members will spend the next several months discussing the budget before submitting their proposal to the commissioners on May 15.

Eliot Duke can be reached at eduke@mydailyrecord.com or at 910-230-2038.

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