BY MIKE FUHRMAN & KARISSA MILLER
Barring voter approval of a new bond referendum authorizing a property tax increase, Iredell County commissioners appear highly unlikely to provide up to $200 million to pay for the construction of a new high school for Iredell-Statesville Schools.
I-SS officials requested between $170 million and $200 million for the new Weathers Creek High School during Tuesday’s Board of Commissioners meeting. Voters approved a referendum in March of 2020 that included $80 million for the new high school, but the project has grown in size and has not been put out for a bid. Construction costs have increased significantly during the past three years.
During Monday’s board meeting, commissioners promised to review a variety of funding proposals presented by I-SS and explore financing options through the N.C. Local Government Commission.
However, during individual interviews with Iredell Free News this week, all five commissioners stressed that they would not vote to spend $200 million on the project without voter approval.
“Even if you had lots of money, this doesn’t make sense to me,” Commissioner Brad Stroud said.
Stroud, who has a child and grandchildren in I-SS schools, said commissioners have an obligation to be good stewards of taxpayer money.
As a result of the property revaluation that has increased the taxable value of many residential properties in Iredell County by 30 to 40 percent, commissioners are feeling some pressure to reduce the property tax rate, which is the lowest in the region. Adding $200 million worth of long-term debt would make it more difficult for commissioners to cut the tax rate.
Commissioner Bert Connolly said the school district’s inability to get the project rolling three years ago – when construction costs and interest rates for bonds significantly lower – will result in taxpayers paying tens of millions more for the new school.
“We will do a school, but we’ve got to do a school that we can afford and is reasonable,” Connolly said. “The three-year delay on this school is going to directly affect what we can and cannot do.”
Connolly, who earlier this year called the school district’s planning and progress on the new high school “a debacle,” pointed out that the Mooresville Graded School District has nearly completed construction of a new middle school that was funded by the same 2020 bond referendum. Meanwhile, the I-SS Board of Education did not approve a formal funding request for its new high school until earlier this month.
Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Melissa Neader said she is committed to examining every detail of every proposal before reaching a final decision on how much money the county can afford to spend on the new high school. I-SS officials have also said the district will need another elementary school to accommodate the growing population.
“Looking at future needs should be considered as we navigate current requests,” Neader explained.
When asked specifically if she would vote to spend $200 million on the new high school without voter approval, Neader responded with a resounding, “No!”
Commissioner Gene Houpe pointed out that the Board of Commissioners has other financial responsibilities. Committing $200 million to a single capital project without a tax increase, he said, would jeopardize other projects and the county’s ability to provide the current level of services to taxpayers.
“We can’t do $200 million without a referendum, but staff are looking at all other options to present to us in our May budget workshops,” he said. “My priority is to lower the tax rate to give relief to the citizens and still provide the services we’re providing and get this school started.”
Among the items on the county’s long-term capital projects list are a new health department, new ICATS facility, new sheriff’s office facility, new courthouse and new fairgrounds. During their winter planning retreat, commissioners also stressed that investing in existing county personnel is a top priority.
Commissioner Scottie Brown was adamant that he would not support a tax increase to pay for the new high school without voter approval.
“The county cannot afford $200 million,” he said. “One promise I always made is we will not raise taxes.”
Brown said the school district should reduce the scope of the high school, which could be expanded later. Connolly previously asked I-SS to consider building an academic facility only on the campus of South Iredell High School or to delay construction of costly ad-ons like the athletic stadium and performing arts center for a couple of years.
The Career Academy and Technical School in Troutman could also be expanded, which would reduce the overcrowding at some schools and buy more time for the high school project, commissioners suggested.
Commissioners have also said the school district should look at redrawing the attendance boundaries for several high schools to ease overcrowding. While Lake Norman and South Iredell high schools are at or above capacity, West Iredell has up to 700 empty seats, commissioners have pointed out.
School officials have not been swayed by any of those arguments. The political ramifications that would result from shifting the attendance boundaries made that suggestion untenable, School Board Chairman Bill Howell has told commissioners.
I-SS officials present funding request
During Tuesday’s Board of Commissioners’ meeting, I-SS Chief of Technology, Facilities and Maintenance Tim Ivey outlined the official funding request.
On March 24, the school board approved a resolution asking commissioners for between $150 million and $170 million to cover construction and between $20 million and $30 million for furniture, fixtures and equipment.
Ivey told commissioners that he believes the lowest bid may come in at around $150 million.
While doing some research, Ivey said he found information about a high school being built in Burlington, Vt., which is similar in size to the Weathers Creek High School. The cost is $200 million for construction of the school alone, he said.
The new Northwest Cabarrus High School cost about $120 million, Ivey said.
Ivey explained three potential funding options for the new high school.
♦ Option 1: County provides the funds
• The Board of Education has determined a critical need for the construction of a new high school and requests the County to fund the construction of the proposed high school in an amount between $150,000,000 and $170,000,000 for construction and $20,000,000 and $30,000,000 for furniture, fixtures, and equipment (FF&E).
• Under this option, the requested construction amount is a range based on the estimates provided by the project architect. The FF&E costs will be difficult to accurately estimate until the board has a better understanding of the school’s programming, including Career Technical Education programs.
♦ Option 2: Public Private partnership
• The county and I-SS would work with a private industry to fund the remaining balance needed for the new high school.
• This debt can be paid over time and potentially at lower interest rates.
• Maintenance of the whole facility is often included in the payment plan and lasts the life of the loan (up to 30 years, if needed).
• Maintenance terms can require the building to be considered in like new condition at the end of the term.
♦ Option 3: Private vendor to provide major mechanical
• The county and I-SS work with a private industry partner to fund the cost of the major mechanical work of the new high school.
• The debt is paid over time and potentially lower interest rates.
Maintenance of the major mechanical work is included as part of the payment plan and lasts the life of the loan (20- to 30-year term loan).
Superintendent Jeff James said that there are grants available for energy efficiencies and other items. He also said that there several schools that have been built using the Public-Private Partnership option.
Commissioners asked County Manager Beth Mull to research interest rates on the proposals and to further vet the information on what would and would not be approved by the Local Government Commission regarding the bonds.