Skyrocketing construction costs mean that some school projects in the $350 million bond proposal that voters approved in 2016 may need to be delayed.
Officials with Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools told the school board in a workshop recently that the sale of bonds will fall about $34 million short of covering all the work on the project list.
“We have a $34 million problem if we continue with all the projects we have in the bond,” said Nick Seeba, the director of facilities and construction for the school district.
Two of the eight remaining projects are most at risk for postponement, according to Darrell Walker, the assistant superintendent of operations for the school district.
Those projects are an addition at Ward Elementary School in southwest Forsyth County and a new middle school in the Smith Farm area, in the southeast part of the county.
Combined, those two projects were estimated to cost about $38 million, but with inflation factored in, the costs for the two projects has ballooned to about $47 million, according to school district figures.
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Scratching those projects from the bond would leave the school district with a surplus of about $12.8 million.
At the time the project list was assembled, school district leaders were set on addressing expected enrollment surges in the southern half of the county.
But enrollment at Ward Elementary has not grown as expected, Walker told the school board.
The number of students attending Ward has steadily dropped over the years, from 760 in 2015-16 to 519 in 2021-22.
The proposed addition at Ward called for building enough classrooms to accommodate 725 students and expanding the cafeteria.
“A lot of the bond was built around extensive growth that was projected to take place from the southeast corner (of the county) to the southwest corner, with a little bit of growth in the core of the city,” Walker said. “It’s where we were really short of seats.”
A middle school in the Smith Farm area is also not a pressing need. The middle schools that serve that area — Philo-Hill and Southeast — have both seen dramatic drops in enrollment. This year, Philo-Hill had 156 fewer students than 2020-21, a 28% drop in enrollment. And Southeast’s enrollment dropped from 1,044 in 2020-21 to 876 this year, a 16% drop.
“We felt like we could postpone Smith Farm because of the change (in attendance), knowing that somewhere in the future, that school will have to be built,” Walker said.
The school district also considered postponing construction of additional classrooms for pre-kindergarten students at Griffith Elementary, but that idea was scrapped after officials with Smart Start produced data showing a strong need for Pre-K in that area.
When projects for the bond were budgeted in 2016, the cost of construction was $200 a square foot for a renovation with an addition and $175 a square foot for new construction. That has jumped to $331 and $290, respectively.
The district budgeted for a 6.4% inflation rate and did not foresee that inflation would reach 9.1%.
Walker said that traditionally construction costs will rise, flatten and even fall in cyclical fashion.
“I think we all, in our minds, thought in 2015 that there would be a rise and a dip, but it never happened,” he said. “It’s very unique and not something anyone saw.”
The school board is expected to decide in August which projects will be delayed. The Forsyth County commissioners, who finance school construction projects, will have final approval, Walker said.
Other remaining projects from the 2016 bond include a renovation at East Forsyth High School, which was estimated to cost $22.5 million and is now projected to cost $29.5 million; and a renovation at Philo-Hill Middle that is also projected to cost $10 million more than expected.
Superintendent Tricia McManus that the Philo-Hill renovation needs to stay on track.
“It is the most dilapidated school,” she told the board. “We have got to invest in that school.”
Philo-Hill’s plummet in enrollment led to a brief discussion among school board members about possibly closing the school. However, some board members countered that the school needs to stay open.
McManus said there is value in having smaller schools.
“I don’t think it needs to be a huge school, frankly. We don’t want to lose that personal touch,” she said. “We don’t need these mammoth schools.”