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CMS Says This Week Will Bring Answers On 2017 Bond Costs And Changes

A K-8 language immersion school on Nations Ford Road is one of the 2017 CMS bond projects.

This week Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools says it will provide details on cost overruns and changes to school bond projects – and will start laying the groundwork for a 2023 bond.

A school under construction on Nations Ford Road is one of the 29 projects approved in 2017 as part of a $922 million CMS bond package. It's slated to open in August 2021 as a K-8 language immersion magnet school.

In 2017 the school was described as a 63-classroom building that would cost $45 million. After parents at the current language magnet school complained that it would be too small, CMS added eight classrooms.

Dennis LaCaria has just been hired as a consultant to help CMS plan and explain its construction projects. He wouldn’t say how much the expansion added to the overall cost of this school. But he says it’s not unusual for the district to make small changes in the size or cost of individual projects – as long as the overall plan balances out.

CMS consultant Dennis LaCaria (left) and Kenneth Brown with CMS-LeChase at the south language school construction site.

"If we’re able to do some value engineering, deliver a project a little early, make some savings on Project 1, we can use that money to help us with Project 2," he said.

But this time CMS says the money is going to run out before the projects are done. LaCaria says the county hired an economist to project how much costs were likely to rise during the seven years it takes to finish all the work.

"I think the number they came in at was just about 11% and what’s actually happening in the market is about 20%," he said.

LaCaria says tariffs have pushed up supply costs while Charlotte's hot construction market has inflated the cost of labor.

County Manager Dena Diorio confirmed those numbers are very close to what the county is using — just over 10% in the initial planning, rising to 18.3% as of 2021. She added that escalation is expected to slow down in coming years but still end up higher than original estimates.

Two Meetings Coming

Rising costs and changing projects are the kind of thing the school board plans to air at Tuesday’s school board meeting. The district has been slow to answer questions from reporters, elected officials and even members of its own Bond Oversight Committee.

That may be partly because the 2017 bond projects were planned under Superintendent Ann Clark, launched under Superintendent Clayton Wilcox, and now fall to Superintendent Earnest Winston. Winston took over about six months ago when Wilcox was forced out.

The current uncertainty has revived tensions from the 2017 bond campaign.

Credit CMS
Plans for the new West Charlotte High building.

For instance, reports posted on the CMS website say the size of two high schools had been reduced. County Commissioner Vilma Leake lobbied to get one of those schools, a replacement building for West Charlotte High, added to the 2017 bond list. She recently accused the school board of reneging on its promises.

In 2017 Jim Puckett urged voters to reject the bonds because there wasn’t enough for the northern suburbs. Puckett, who used to represent that area as a county commissioner and is running for that seat again, is now calling on the school board to completely rethink its project list and add northern schools.

Technically, that would be legal. But Board Chair Elyse Dashew says it won’t happen.

"I worked too hard to pass the 2017 bond, just to even get this bond in front of the voters, this group of projects, and then to ask the voters to trust us to build these projects," she said. "So, we are not going to back away on anything that is in the bond."

What will happen at Tuesday night’s school board meeting is a "comprenehsive conversation" between CMS staff and board members that Dashew says is overdue: "Where we are, how we got here (and) where do we go from here."

On Wednesday afternoon, the school board will review the same information with officials from the county, the city of Charlotte and the six other towns in Mecklenburg County.

Community Conversations Coming

Both meetings are open to the public but don’t allow for public comment. Dashew and LaCaria say there will be plenty of community forums in the coming months where people can weigh in.

All of this is partly to clarify the 2017 bonds, but also to lay groundwork for the next round of school construction, which is still several years in the future. LaCaria says the plan is to spend this year holding community sessions. Next year, he says, the school board could approve a ranking of all CMS construction needs, followed by "another bond, potentially in 2023."

Dashew says it’s too early to commit to the timing of the next bond vote. She’s just hoping an open public discussion puts the district on track to win approval eventually.

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