School system braces for challenges ahead | The Stokes News

School system braces for challenges ahead | The Stokes News
 			 				                                Sandy Ridge Elementary School is one of seven aging schools in the county and in need of renovations, according to a recent Facility Condition Assessment (FCA) discussed at Monday night’s school board meeting.                                  Courtesy photo

Sandy Ridge Elementary School is one of seven aging schools in the county and in need of renovations, according to a recent Facility Condition Assessment (FCA) discussed at Monday night’s school board meeting.

Courtesy photo

Stokes County School Board members came in ready to discuss nearly 400 pages of a Facility Condition Assessment (FCA) in preparation for Monday night’s meeting with Peterson / Gordon Architects Consultant Engineering Service. The FCA assessment began in August of last year and concluded in October. Teams from the firm visited every school in Stokes County to collect data and help define the condition of the schools. The lengthy report focused on each of the 19 school’s exteriors, interiors, roof surfaces, plumbing systems, HVAC, and electrical systems.

The findings were dismal.

“Your maintenance staff has done a wonderful job of keeping them going, but the majority of your stuff is really old. As homeowners, you understand that if your furnace or your heat pump is 20 to 30 years old, you’re living on borrowed time. It could be a big expense to replace it. Well, guess what? Most of your stuff is at least that old or older,” said Chris Stroup of Peterson / Gordon to the board of education.

Seven of the 19 schools in Stokes County have less than 20 years of life left, based off an 80-year-lifespan. These schools are King Elementary built in 1952, London Elementary built in 1956, Nancy Reynolds Elementary built in 1951, Pine Hall Elementary built in 1954, Pinnacle Elementary built in 1957, Sandy Ridge Elementary built in 1950, and Southeastern Middle built in 1951.

Peterson / Gordon’s report stated full renovations of schools around the county is estimated at $90 million and limited renovations at nearly $54.5 million.

But the architects warned that even with renovations, lead times to order necessary parts and equipment should cause concern.

“There’s a big-ticket item looming out there and one of the problems that our society is having right now is buying things. You can’t just go get something at Lowe’s or call up your supply house and go pick these things up. The lead times for things are precarious,” Stroup said.

Need a new generator? It’s 60 to 70 weeks out, according to Stroup.

“How we operate buildings has drastically changed. How long it stays in this predicament, I don’t know. But I do know it is a problem,” he said.

Other concerns noted in the report and discussed on Monday are the school’s electrical panels. Stroup said many of the facilities have panels that were manufactured by companies that have been out of business for more than 30 years.

“If you lose a panel, like I said earlier, it’s going to be a year, a year-and-a half lead time before you can get a new one. So, if you can live without a school for a year, year-and-a half, I guess you’ll save a lot of energy on that school. I don’t know what you do with your staff and students, so it’s a big concern. When these things happen, it’s not inexpensive.”

Stroup discussed underground fuel oil tanks on Stokes campuses.

“You’ve already had a situation at one school, but you’ve got a lot of underground fuel tanks. Most of them are original to the buildings so they are extremely old and an extreme environmental concern. As to when will they start leaking? It’s not if they will, it’s when.”

Galvanized steel water supply piping also posed concerns in the report.

“Most of your water heaters have lasted surprisingly long. Usually when you see schools with well water systems, they develop leaks a lot quicker. But you’re hanging in there, but you’ve got some really old water heaters, and when they die, it’s not a matter of running over to Lowe’s and getting one that would suffice. So again, the lead time becomes important if you want to keep your kitchens up and going and able to sanitize the plates and silverware.”

The engineering firm praised the school system for installing LED lights at some schools as “a fantastic move that will pay for itself” and encouraged updates for the remaining schools still in need.

Stroup urged school board members to develop an immediate strategic plan of action.

“Start chiseling away at it instead of just sitting and hoping that nothing bad happens because that’s not going to work out smoothly for anybody. In general you’ve done a great job of keeping schools together and operating, but in our humble opinion, it’s time to start looking at spending some money.”

School board member, Cheryl Knight said the report was “very, very concerning” and the issues have been lingering for years.

“We just happen to be the lucky ones that have to address it because like you said, it’s just any day something major could cause a school not to be in operation.”

When it came to enrollment numbers, as of October 2022, only 50% of the county’s elementary schools were at capacity, 68% of middle schools and 57% of capacity at the high schools.

The report stated that as staffing and energy costs increase there will be a need to determine how to make the schools in service operate nearer to capacity.

One option included schools with conversion potential. Peterson / Gordon stated schools that are candidates for conversion with projected configuration are Nancy Reynolds as elementary school to middle school, Piney Grove as middle school to elementary, Poplar Springs elementary to middle school, South Stokes high school to high school/middle school 7-12 and North Stokes high school to high school/middle school 7-12.

Peterson said it’s based solely on its ability to be converted. Some schools noted would not make candidates for conversion due to location and current enrollment capacity.

Board member Mike Rogers conceded the report was “depressing” but said, “One thing everybody needs to know is we’re not just out here trying to figure out what schools to shut down. A combo class doesn’t work, and a 100-year-old building doesn’t work, but somewhere there’s a happy medium where we’re spending the tax-payer dollars wisely because we are stewards of their money. We are also in charge of making sure that we educate the students of Stokes County as best as we can. It should never be strictly dollars, strictly efficiency, strictly passion for a facility. It should be about a passion for that child and their education.”

The school board is continuing to gather facts before making any decisions, said Superintendent Dr. Brad Rice, and is hoping to have the data collected by the end of the school year.

“At that point, when the board has all of that information, the board will be able to make some informed decisions. We’ll be meeting with county commissioners as well during this time. I would like to reiterate, no decisions have been made.”

Amanda Dodson may be reached at 336-813-2426.