“There’s a lot of things driving the cost of construction,” said Darin Allison, director of capital projects and facilities for Jackson Schools. “Number one being the building climate right now is nothing like anyone’s seen in the Southeast since the late ‘90s, early 2000s.”
Costs have rebounded since the recession, Allison said, and there are a limited number of quality tradesmen available to perform all the projects that need doing.
The cost overruns are so severe, in fact, that Allison has axed three needed projects from the docket, bringing the immediate shortfall down to $1.2 million. The three projects to be delayed are replacing the chiller and boiler system serving the D, E and science wings at Smoky Mountain High School, replacing the HVAC unit for the B building at SMHS and replacing the school’s cafeteria roof.
“We had to totally reprioritize and try to come up with the most critical needs first,” Allison said.
“Not that those last three projects aren’t critical needs, but they are lower in the priority sheet,” added Acting Superintendent Kim Elliott.
The projects included in the $9 million of spending are all nuts-and-bolts endeavors to address the basic functionality and safety of the system’s schools. They include HVAC replacements, reroofing projects and water system upgrades.
“We have very little leeway in reprioritizing,” Elliott said. “We believe we’ve done a good job of reprioritizing the highest needs at the highest levels, so we don’t have the ability to shuffle projects of a lower priority down because we’ve already done that.”
During an August work session, county commissioners discussed the cost overruns and how the county might address them.
“Timing in this conversation really matters,” said County Manager Don Adams.
Currently, there is about $1.3 million available in the fund that would go toward the school projects, so pulling $1.2 million out to cover the overruns would just about wipe it out. However, the fund accrues more dollars each quarter from sales tax revenues, so more money will be available as time goes on.
Commissioners expressed a commitment to seeing the school projects through. At their Aug. 28 meeting, they voted to appropriate an additional $627,000 toward the school projects. More could be allocated in the future. The goal is to have the work done by March 2020, and the school system is currently busy managing a variety of other projects, so there is some time to work with.
However, getting the entire project load done, including the three projects that have been placed to the wayside for now, could be another story. Allison estimates those three projects will cost about $977,000, but that number is based on a 2014 assessment — costs have risen since then.
In addition, the school system is having issues with the water towers at Blue Ridge School and Smokey Mountain Elementary School. Recent water testing shows that neither school has a water quality issue, but the tanks themselves have outlived their usefulness.
The plan is to create a new, ground-level reservoir system at Blue Ridge and connect into the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians tribal water system at Smokey Mountain. The aging water towers would then be retired. However, those projects will carry a hefty cost as well. Elliott is hoping that the school system can land a Community Development Block Grant from the state administered portion of the federal grant program to fund them — grant eligibility is based on the economic need of the school’s population — but it won’t be until next year that grantees are announced. The application deadline is Nov. 1.
“It is a competitive grant,” Allison said. “Getting the reporting back in a timely fashion is a hurdle for that, but the fund allotment totally depends on how many school systems within North Carolina are approved for the grant.”
Jackson County does have one bright spot in its quest to fund these school improvements. The $9 million is funded through a Qualified Zone Academy Bond loan, which allows the school system to borrow the money with 0 percent interest. Back when the QZAB loan was being discussed, Adams told commissioners that it would save the county $2.3 million over the 15-year term. So, while rising construction costs have caused issues for Jackson Schools, the county is able to address the problem from ahead of the starting line rather than from behind it.