Caldwell County approves $14.5 million loan to build middle school

May. 21, 2013 @ 09:22 AM

Caldwell County will take out a loan for about $14.5 million so the Caldwell County Schools can build  what officials have called a “long-overdue” middle school they have sought for nearly 20 years.

The agreement approved Monday night by the Caldwell County Board of Commissioners will give the school system 20 years to pay back the loan, and superintendent Steve Stone has said it will not result in a tax increase.

“Caldwell County, with existing funding from the state, can pay for this building,” Stone said in a written statement at Monday’s meeting of the county commissioners. He said later by phone that North Carolina is among a few states in the country prohibiting school districts from raising taxes to help pay for such projects.

The school system plans to use about $2.4 million it receives annually in sales tax revenue from the state and county, on which the majority of the schools in the state rely, and an additional $850,000 in state funds based on district enrollment to pay for the new school, which will replace William Lenoir Middle School. The school system has saved about $3 million in capital improvement money preparing for the project.

For the past 18 years, school officials have sought to replace William Lenoir, which used to house only black students in what was called Freedman High School during segregation. The county has not seen construction of a new middle school in recent memory.

Stone, who has served as superintendent for the past seven years, said he has seen a growing demand for enrollment in the school, which is limited to fewer than 550 students.

“There’s no room for growth down there,” he said of William Lenoir, whose infrastructure he added has remained outdated for several years. “Our kids deserve this.”

But disagreements in years past among county commissioners, largely over the cost of a new school – initially estimated at about $19 million – stalled plans. Four years ago, commissioners rejected such a proposal.

The projected cost dropped last year, Stone said, when school officials decided to remove plans for an auditorium and other expenses related to certain kinds of construction.

The new school will be built on 60 acres adjacent to Hibriten High School, with which it will share certain resources, such as transportation, Stone said. The school system has owned the property since 2003.

It is designed to house an initial 600 students, with other parts, such as the gym and cafeteria, large enough for up to 750, he said, adding it also will feature technology in the classroom that “hadn’t even been invented yet” for subjects like science and art.

The formal approval of plans drew relief from Darrell Pennell, the chairman of the school board, who at the meeting called the project “one of the most significant and pressing capital needs that we’ve had for some time.”

The school district will seek bids initially from local contractors before starting construction, which is expected to finish by the 2015-16 school year.

School officials have said they will seek public input about the fate of what residents likely will refer to as the old William Lenoir Middle in the coming years.