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CMS and town leaders talk about growth, safety and school construction plans

The cost of building a full-size high school contained in one building has risen from $52 million in 2010 to $130 million today, a CMS consultant says.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
The cost of building a full-size high school contained in one building has risen from $52 million in 2010 to $130 million today, a CMS consultant says.

Growth, rising construction costs, safety and the aftermath of a battle over municipal charter schools were up for discussion Tuesday when officials from suburban towns met with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders.

A CMS consultant presented a ranked list of future construction and renovation plans to the Municipal Education Advisory Committee. It's a first step toward refining that list and taking a school bond package to voters in 2023.

Almost five years ago Mecklenburg County voters approved $992 million in bonds for CMS. Most of those projects are finished or getting close.

CMS construction consultant Dennis LaCaria told town officials the district hopes county commissioners will vote to borrow more than double that amount next year.

"It sounds like a lot of money and it is," LaCaria told the group, "but a billion dollars just doesn’t go as far as one might think anymore."

For instance, LaCaria said, CMS built Rocky River and Hough high schools for about $52 million each in 2010. Now they’re building a similar school in south Charlotte "and it's costing us $130 million."

The list of projects needed for the coming decade totals more than $5 billion. LaCaria said he hopes the 2023 bonds will cover roughly half of that list — 40 to 45 projects costing $2 billion to $2.5 billion.

What makes the cut?

Renee Garner, mayor pro tem of Matthews, said she’s worried that a $49.5 million plan to replace the Matthews Elementary building won’t make the cut.

"Part of the building was built in '54, part of it was built in '69, part of it was built in '71," she said. "So we have a cobbled-together elementary school that’s loved by our community, but we are very excited about the potential for this."

That’s always part of the challenge in rallying support from town leaders and voters: If favorite local projects aren’t funded, opposition can build. It’s up to Mecklenburg County commissioners to decide how much debt they’re willing to take on through school bonds, but up to the CMS board to decide how to spend it.

School board member Rhonda Cheek, who chairs the advisory committee, said the current project rankings are just a starting point. CMS plans to revisit them in the fall when it has new enrollment numbers.

Cheek, who represents the northern suburbs, said students there are already returning to CMS after enrollment dropped during the pandemic.

"Our numbers are going to jump pretty drastically and I’ve already prepared Mr. LaCaria to have to reorder all of our projects," she said. We’re definitely seeing a big surge at J.V. Washam, at Davidson K-8. Bailey has seen a huge amount of kids come in. Hough continues to grow, Huntersville Elementary."

Municipal charter tension

The current ranking system penalizes projects located in Huntersville and Mint Hill. In 2018, after a tense student assignment review, local lawmakers authorized four towns to create municipal charter schools, using local tax money and giving attendance preference to town residents.

CMS responded by passing a resolution to lower the priority for projects in towns with that authority. Matthews and Cornelius voted not to pursue town charter schools. Huntersville and Mint Hill haven’t taken any steps to create such schools but also haven’t voted not to.

Huntersville Commissioner Lance Munger questioned the wisdom of lowering the ranking of a replacement building for North Mecklenburg High School, located in Huntersville. Its attendance zone also encompasses north Charlotte. He said only 9% of North Meck students live in Huntersville.

"You’re penalizing Charlotte residents," he said.

No one from CMS disputed his numbers or logic. Munger asked what the town would need to do to remove the penalty, which could make the difference between North Meck being included in the 2023 plan or having to wait for a later bond.

The CMS resolutionsays the towns can avoid such penalties by passing "a binding resolution ... guaranteeing a 15-year moratorium" on municipal charters.

Taxes and safety

CMS always hopes local leaders will support school bond campaigns. In some years, resistance has arisen when towns decide they’re paying too much in property taxes and not getting enough for their money. LaCaria tried to anticipate that question by reminding officials that a disproportionate share of property tax revenue comes from the uptown Charlotte business district.

"Everybody pays property taxes and that all goes into the pot, but you know, nobody pays what Bank of America pays for property taxes," he said. "So that’s the biggest pot of money that gets distributed across the county."  

With a mass school shooting in Texas and a surge of guns in CMS fresh in everyone’s mind, CMS board member Jennifer De La Jara asked LaCaria to recap what the construction plans would do to protect students.

LaCaria said CMS hopes to replace schools with vulnerable layouts, such as sprawling campuses and classroom buildings with lots of outside doors. New schools are designed to be safer from an attack, he said.

"We are doing some things to harden the entries, relative to glass and other things, glazing," he said. "We are setting up secure vestibules for entry with service windows inside those vestibules so that folks can be served without even having to come into the office."

LaCaria said the interior design also focuses on safety: "Clear sights in the hallways, long views, being able to have the opportunity for folks to step into the hall and being able to scan the entire length or breadth of the building."

But replacement schools are not a quick fix. CMS expects to spend months discussing construction priorities before taking a plan to voters in November of 2023. Construction can take years after that.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.