BOND REFERENDUM UPDATE: Why it costs so much to build NC Public Schools

NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - You may have heard that the New Hanover County School Board is working to get a 284 million dollar bond passed, to fund the construction of several new schools and the renovation of others. But is it necessary to spend that much money when other local schools are housing their students for far less?

Brunswick County's Charter Day School is a privately run charter school with more than 900 students. But from the outside, it doesn't look much like a school. The school consists of dozens of modular units in a wooded area near Highway 87.

"We do not have an enclosed gym, we do not have an enclosed cafeteria, we do not have an enclosed auditorium," explained school founder Baker Mitchell. "But those are cost savings that we are able to pass along to the students, with better materials and technology and that sort of thing."

You might think the lack of a traditional brick school house would be disappointing for parents and students, but parent surveys show 90% are satisfied or highly satisfied with the summer camp-like setting at Charter Day School. Weather permitting, kids eat outside, play outside, and get more fresh air than students in traditional schools.

What's more - so many parents want to send their kids to Charter Day School, they have to turn away about 200 students each year. In light of New Hanover County School's proposed bond referendum, it's also noteworthy that it is much cheaper to build a campus like the one at Charter Day School than a traditional public school.

Mitchell says he built Charter Day School for about a third of the cost per student when compared to the $19 million estimate to build each new elementary school proposed for New Hanover County. Some other North Carolina charter schools opting to build traditional brick school buildings have still managed to do so for much less than the state's traditional public schools.

"Charter schools as a whole are forced to be more efficient," Mitchell explained. "They talk about charter schools as laboratories of innovation for instruction, but I think we're also laboratories of innovation for financing."

We asked New Hanover County School Board member Janice Cavenaugh about the high cost of public school construction. She says the state mandates everything from the amount of square feet required per student to construction quality - making it nearly impossible to achieve any meaningful cost savings.

"It's horribly frustrating because you don't have the control, if you had the control without so many regulations, it would be so much easier, but there are regulations upon regulations upon regulations," Cavenaugh said.

In the past, the New Hanover County School Board has tried to get the state to relax the requirements involving school construction - without success. But in light of our new construction needs, and the new faces in state government, school board members say it may be an issue worth revisiting.

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