Local News

School construction costs upset Wake commissioners

Posted August 17, 2009 5:36 p.m. EDT
Updated August 17, 2009 6:38 p.m. EDT

— Members of the Wake County Board of Commissioners expressed anger and frustration Monday about cost overruns in the planning of a new high school northeast of Raleigh.

The Wake County school district budgeted $1.7 million for road work at Forest Ridge High School, for example, but district officials recently told county officials that those costs would be at least $7.4 million.

"Is this the result of incompetence, or was there a willful intent to mislead us?" a seething Commissioner Paul Coble asked.

Coble said school district officials repeatedly told commissioners that a site near the intersection of U.S. Highway 401 and Forestville Road was the best site for a planned high school and that other sites in the area were too expensive or wouldn't fit plans for the school.

"We need to stop wasting money taxpayers don't have," he said, suggesting that the extra money be spent on finding a new site for the school.

The Board of Commissioners needs to assert more financial oversight over the school district to ensure money is spent efficiently, Commissioner Tony Gurley said.

"This is a perfect example of how we should start holding them accountable," Gurley said. "We, as a board, should right now put a stop to the wasteful spending on this project."

Gurley and Coble predicted the district would scrap plans for a football stadium at the school – it could share the stadium at nearby Heritage High School – to make up for the cost overruns and then seek commissioners' approval later for adding a football stadium to a future bond issue.

No one from the school board or school district administration attended the commissioners' meeting, and Commissioners Stan Norwalk and Lindy Brown said they wanted to hear a detailed explanation from school district officials before skewering them.

Norwalk said he was curious if details about the project had changed over time.

County Manager David Cooke noted the state Department of Transportation initially said few road improvements would be needed and that Raleigh officials said Canyon Drive, a proposed road that also will connect to a middle school planned for the area, wouldn't need to meet the requirements of a city street. Now, he said, the DOT wants more road improvements, and Raleigh wants Canyon Drive to be a city street.

The $73 million high school is slated to open in 2012. The opening date was pushed back by a year because the slow economy and the tight bond market affected the school district's construction schedule.

Commissioner Joe Bryan said he was "personally very embarrassed" but the cost overruns.

"We've got these checklists in place, and we still make this type of mistake," Bryan said. "Both boards, quite frankly, look like we don't know what we're doing."

The cost dispute allowed some earlier opponents to the planned Forest Ridge High site to once again argue that the school should be built at another location.

"I think now is the time to stand up and tell the Wake County schools, 'This is enough. We're going to find another site,'" Rolesville Mayor Frank Eagles said. "If Wake County public schools continues to insist on the site, taxpayers should get a permit to picket Wake public schools, and I think we ought to carry a bucket of tar, some feathers and a rail."