LEE COUNTY: Commissioners hear report on cost-effective school construction

Jan. 22, 2014 @ 05:02 AM

After receiving 10 large-scale construction requests from Lee County Schools, including two new elementary schools, the Lee County Board of Commissioners brought in a representative of a company that builds environmentally friendly schools to make a presentation.

Robbie Ferris, president and CEO of architecture firm FirstFloor K-12 Solutions, attended Tuesday's meeting of the board of commissioners to pitch his company's Dragonfly school design. It is a green-energy, cost-effective school with solar panels on the roofs and green space on the ground that is able to "collect and reprocess energy, rainwater and waste," according to a company brochure, which also claimed a Dragonfly school would actually create more energy than it uses.

But even more different than its energy-efficient focus is the company’s strategy of leasing school buildings. Commissioners Kirk Smith and Jim Womack both said they recognize the need for new schools – every public elementary school in Lee County is at or above capacity – but are also concerned about the county, which funds school construction, taking on more debt. A lease agreement could solve that, they said.

Ferris’ company recently built a middle school in Hoke County, which he said cost the county about $20 million less than a traditional school.

The actual construction cost is similar, he said. The savings comes from the lack of utility payments – since the school produces more energy than it uses – which totaled about $16 million, plus $4 million in tax credits for job creation and solar panel installation.

He said the school district could also be absolved of having to look after maintenance; his company is providing upkeep for the HVAC systems and solar panels at the Hoke County school but would have been willing to provide upkeep for everything if the district had asked for it. His company could also provide materials.

“We can include furniture, pots and pans, letterhead, whatever you need, in that lease,” Ferris said.

The presentation was for information only; the commissioners didn't take any action on the matter.

Bill Tatum, a former school board chairman, and local citizen Jay Calendine both attended the meeting to say that current school board members had pitched this idea to the commissioners months ago but were ignored. Womack later said that wasn’t true and that the county had been looking into this idea for nearly a year.

Discussions about schools and school funding weren’t the most controversial item of the night, however. That distinction belonged to a debate over approval of the local use of a community services block grant for Johnston-Lee-Harnett Community Action, a nonprofit group that helps low-income people in those three counties.

Approval was eventually granted unanimously, but not before about half an hour of arguments over the group’s effectiveness.

The discussion had been tabled from the last meeting because the group’s executive director wasn’t able to attend to answer questions; she also missed Tuesday’s meeting, citing concerns about the weather via Commissioner Amy Dalrymple, who serves on the group’s board of directors along with Commissioner Ricky Frazier.

Womack, who previously served on the group’s board of directors, was also the most outspoken voice of reticence over approval, noting the federal government had found a number of issues inside the group in a recent audit. He also noted that officers spent about $20,000 last year on traveling to conferences and that many of the services the group provides are duplications of services provided by other Lee County-only groups.

Smith joined him in hesitation, saying he had looked over the group’s request and found numerous contradictions and generally confusing statements.

Yet Dalrymple defended the group, which she said doesn’t just provide handouts for help with housing or transportation, but also gives education on job skills as well as lifestyle changes for those in the program.

“They do a very good job of looking at the applicants, vetting them and making sure they don’t receive duplicate services,” she said.

Commissioner Robert Reives noted that since the grant had already been granted by the federal government to the group, there was little point in the county voting against it. He suggested that they approve the grant and then send concerns and suggestions to the group’s leadership.

“We can pull out any time we want to pull out,” Reives said. “But don’t hold up progress.”

The rest of the board was swayed and unanimously went along. Womack added that since the group has now missed two opportunities to answer questions in person, he would at least like to see someone during the county’s upcoming budget workshops.

The board also:

* Approved its consent agenda.

* Heard a presentation from Greg Taylor, executive director of the Fort Bragg Regional Alliance, on the relationship between Fort Bragg and local communities, schools and businesses.

* Approved a contract for COLTS and Fleming Transportation, a local taxi company, to provide non-emergency Medicaid transportation.

* Approved a $53,000 contract to improve the county’s emergency services communications system.

* Accepted about $6,800 from the state for training health staff under the Healthy Communities program.

* Tabled a vote on a request from Lee County Board of Education to hire an additional four school resource officers on top of three new officers that will be paid for by grants. Hiring the four officers would allow every school to have an officer on campus full-time. Discussion will resume at the joint budget meeting between the two boards on Feb. 6.

The meeting continued past the Herald's deadline. See follow-up coverage in the Herald later this week.