ABSS, Commissioners working through preliminary new school details

The Alamance-Burlington School System Board of Education is looking closely at tracts of land along S. N.C. Highway 119 in Haw River, approximately one mile north of the Honda Plant in Swepsonville. The 95-plus acre site, covering two tracts of land, would be ideally suited between Eastern Alamance and Southern Alamance High Schools. Although ABSS has not formally begun negotiations with the owners of the two properties, this site has been recommended for the new school by The Timmons Group, a civil engineering firm hired by the county to examine potential school site. 

As the Alamance-Burlington School System Board of Education moves along in the process of bringing a seventh public high school to Alamance County, county leaders appear to be zeroing in on property along N.C. Highway 119 south in Haw River, located approximately a mile north of the Honda Plant in Swepsonville. 

The ABSS board could vote to begin purchase negotiations with the owners of two large tracts of land in the area later this fall. The Timmons Group, a civil engineering firm assisting ABSS and Alamance County in its search for a new school site, has recommended the two tracts, covering approximately 96 acres, as the most ideal location for the new school. 

At last week’s ABSS work session, however, the board did not take action on starting negotiations with the property owners. Prior to those negotiations, the county is exploring a potential site near Graham Regional Park, which is owned by the City of Graham, at the request of ABSS School Board member Patsy Simpson. 

Once the new school’s site is officially determined and the land is purchased, the county will move forward with the construction of the new facility. The entire process is anticipated to take approximately four years.  

The county is looking into a Construction Manager at Risk (CMR) scenario for the new high school, which would have a Haw River address. Under Construction Manager at Risk, the county would hire a separate construction management firm that would give the county a bid price for the construction of the new school, and would then put the firm on the hook for meeting that bid price or risk losing money on the project. 

For projects including the extensive renovation set to take place at nearly 60-year-old Eastern Alamance High School, ABSS is considering a “Design-Bid-Build” option, in which Alamance County would contract with separate entities for each of the various construction and design projects. 

According to Kennon Briggs, who is consulting the county with its planning and logistics for the new school bonds for ABSS and Alamance Community College, the Design-Bid-Build scenario can take a little longer, but it is a straight-forward process that is widely accepted as a tried-and-true method for school construction projects. An architect selected by the school system would oversee the design phase of the project, and then proceed with bidding out the project to would-be contractors. From there, the project gets built, and renovations are completed. 

Briggs recommended that Alamance County hire a construction management firm that will suggest local contractors to perform the work on as many of these projects as possible, thereby keeping the money local in the county. 

“The design team is impartial as to who does the work. And it should be that way. They look out for the owner a great deal in the process,” Briggs informed ABSS School Board and members of the Alamance County Commissioners in a joint meeting earlier this month in Graham. “It ensures fairness and openness. The bid openings are in a public setting. The citizens of Alamance County can attend those openings.”

Alamance County has already hired a Project Manager, which will work in conjunction with the CMR firm and county officials to oversee each of the various construction projects taking place over the next several years throughout the county. 

“I’m a believer in shared governance,” said Briggs, the former Chair of the Board of Trustees at UNC-Asheville. “And I’ll tell you why. On a campus, there’s the faculty, the Board of Trustees, and the Chancellor. And they all have to work together. They (these kinds of construction projects) need a construction manager. Someone has to coordinate all this work. And it is a full-time job. I think the county - it’s the banker, it’s the umbrella, is the fiduciary - might consider your own person who interplays - closes the triangle of shared governance. It’s something to consider.” 

“This is a big deal. The largest bond in the county’s history. A good deal,” Briggs continued. 

Briggs mentioned that the design phase alone can take up to a year and a half in the Design-Bid-Build method, but that the end result is a higher-quality delivery to the county. 

“That (the Design-Bid-Build scenario) takes time - 12 to 18 months on design. It is the slowest method, because all that design work has to be approved before moving forward,” he said. 

“Lowest costs, my friends, isn’t always the best delivery model. As my dad used to say, sometimes you get what you pay for.”

For projects such as the renovations at Eastern Alamance High, Briggs did not recommend that the county pursue a “Single Prime” model, in which a contractor rolls the entire price of the high school project into one massive quote. Briggs indicated that Single Prime used to be the industry standard, but law changes have made the model cumbersome and challenging as a method of delivery. 

County leaders also discussed the “Design-Build” scenario, which takes out the bidding process and involves the hiring of one firm to complete the designing and the construction of a new school all together. Recently-completed Elon Elementary School - a school design that has been constructed numerous times at other sites - fits into the Design-Build model.  

“You’re choosing one firm to do the design and the build,” Briggs said. “You’re handing that responsibility over. It minimizes risk for you, and it can shorten the delivery schedule. It all kind of rolls together. You have one point of contact.”

School and county leaders lamented the fact that Elon Elementary, which was built privately with funds partially provided through a partnership with Elon University, was built for $18 million, but that same school would cost $23 million to be built through public means such as the issuing of county or municipal bonds. 

“Governmental contracting is absolutely more expensive,” Briggs explained. 

“It’s really frustrating to see how we get ripped off,” added ABSS School Board member Pam Thompson.

At the joint meeting with local elected officials in early September, County Commissioner Steve Carter brought up the idea of considering a Public Private Partnership, in which the county would work out an arrangement with a private developer to construct the school at a lower cost than through public methods. This would be one way in which the county could potentially save millions of dollars in up-front construction costs with the new high school. 

Under a Public-Private Partnership, the private developer has to have at least 50 percent of the financing cost available to deliver for completion of the project. Therefore, in investing 50 percent of the project cost, they must get something in return. They must recover their 50 percent, cover costs, and find a way to attain some profit on the project.

Ever-increasing costs of building materials and rapid escalation in the price of building educational facilities is currently hurting education construction, Briggs admitted. The rising costs make the concept of a Public-Private Partnership a sound one in many instances, such as the construction of a cafeteria on a college campus that can generate revenue while also providing an important campus need. 

While Briggs indicated that he’s not opposed to Public-Private Partnerships in certain instances in certain parts of the country, in the case of a high school in a rural area such as southeastern Alamance County, it may not be as feasible. The reason is because it is difficult to imagine how the new school could produce a revenue stream for a private developer that would justify putting up 50 percent of the financing cost for the new school, which is projected to cost as much as $70 million to complete. 

While the county has not made any formal decisions on the various processes, the timetable is about to kick into high gear. Once the ABSS School Board approves a site this fall, the bidding process will begin in earnest, and the design phase will also go into full effect. County Commissioners will begin taking actions to distribute the nearly $190 million in bond funds for the various ABSS and ACC projects.