Saturday, September 14, 2013

Back story on MES expansion

There is an important and interesting back story behind the Manteo Preservation Trust's recent proposal to swap land with the Dare County Schools  in an effort for MPT to gain ownership of the WPA-built gym.

In the spirit of full disclosure, recently I was hired by the MPT to write a press release explaining the importance in preserving the building and how the school could benefit from a land swap while not delaying construction of the new addition to the school.

Today, MPT agreed to release me from writing on its behalf. I made the  request because while doing due diligence before writing the release, some interesting facts began to emerge and even more troubling questions surfaced. MPT's goal is just to get a fair hearing of their proposal so preferred not to question recent decisions of the school board related to the overcrowding of Manteo Elementary School.

I respect MPT's decision not to raise negative questions about the school board's decision-making but as a journalist, a strong advocate of open government and transparency, unwavering supporter of public education and as a taxpayer, I feel strongly that the public is due all the facts.

Wanchese parents have been misled and used as a political hammer by the school board to get its way.

The most obvious question that apparently hasn't been asked is how many elementary students live in that community and what is the racial demographic make-up?

Unless the student racial mix of Manteo Elementary School changes dramatically in the next several years, busing students from Wanchese to Nags Head  might put the school board at risk of taking on significant legal challenges based on a laundry list of Constitutional and federal legislative mandates. Currently, according to, the student population is 64 percent white and 36 percent minority. This national nonprofit that rates schools has significantly different numbers of students and class size than those usually cited. It was updated in May and according to the website, information is obtained by pulling numbers from the state related to standardized testing.

Most of the minority students appear to live in Manteo or on the mainland. If the Wanchese students were removed it could significantly change the demographic make up.

There are plenty of questions about the planned addition. The first clue that something is amiss is the contract for demolishing the old gym. The school board asked the county to approve $62,680 and said that it includes the tipping fees . I've helped negotiate contracts for demolition of homes and for a modest size house constructed from wood, the cost has ranged from $11,000 to $15,000 and didn't include tipping fees. The gym is two-story and the footprint is several times larger than most homes.

The gym is unique in that it is built of solid concrete - not cinder - blocks, The concrete blocks were made in Dare County by CCC workers in the 1930's using portland cement and sand gravel, (most likely sand, rock and shell) which was readily available. According to several companies that make these, the older the blocks are, the harder they are.

A number of years ago, the Town of Manteo decided to plant a couple of trees in a sidewalk made with the same type mix of concrete. When the man with the jackhammer began work, he looked like he was on a pogo stick bouncing up and down but not making a dent in the sidewalk.

The gym is going to take extraordinary effort to bring down which could lead to substantial cost overruns.

School officials say that the school is about 140 students above capacity but wants to build just six classrooms. which averages 23 per class. The school is pre-K through fifth grade and according to Education First North Carolina School Report Cards, Manteo Elementary class sizes range from 19 for kindergarten to 23 for fifth grade. So why are only six classrooms being added? Only a few families moving into the school's service area would put it over capacity again.

The current school is about seven years old and was supposed to serve the needs of Roanoke Island and the mainland for many years to come but was over capacity by 2008. According to the US Census, from the 2000 to the 2010 census, the Town of Manteo's population (only a small portion of the area being served by the school) grew by more than 36 percent. and the youth population for ages 0-4 grew a whopping 74 percent. To see the comparison of the two censuses go to

Roanoke Island and the mainland are growing more rapidly than any other area of the county. For comparisons with other county communities go to to see Nags Head or to for a look-see at Kitty Hawk.

The MES student population increased substantially from 2000-2010 even though the area was hit by one of the worst economic downturns in recent times and prompted many to leave Dare County. This area has affordable housing and will continue to draw new residents who don't want to live on the beach. While many of the other areas serving individual schools within the county are almost at build-out status for adding new homes, the mainland and Roanoke Island have literally thousands of undeveloped residential lots. The implications don't take rocket science to understand.

Where could yet another addition be added? Wouldn't it make sense to double the current plan by building a two-story addition? The extra cost of an elevator and stairwells could be substantially offset by the fact that there would not need to be additional roof or foundation costs.

And if the school has been over capacity since 2008, why? There has been room at the Manteo Middle School that could be used for the fifth grade. There are schools all over the state that have K-8 in one school. As the middle school reaches capacity, the grade would have to be shifted back to MES but hopefully by that time a solution would have been accomplished.

The plans for the new school don't address parking for the additional staff needed for the new classrooms. There already are more staff vehicles than available spaces which has led many to park on the grass behind the school and in front of the old gym. How are the parking issues going to be resolved without taking more space away from the playground?

Several who posted comments on the Outer Banks Voice asked why if MPT was so concerned about the building, they hadn't kept it up. Easy answer - it is a public building and elected officials have an legal obligation to maintain and repair all public assets under their management. If the wiring is ancient, why wasn't it replaced? If there are termites, why wasn't it treated? The taxpayers deserve better care of their public buildings.

Luckily, because the outside structure is concrete, even termite damage doesn't hamper the integrity of the structure. But the interior is not in as bad shape as has been described by several. Click here to see a photo taken recently of the unique truss roof supports and click here to see what the collegiate-size basketball court looks like.

Whether you like old buildings or not, the land swap proposed by MPT could be a win-win. The county would gain 2.5 times the amount of property that the gym is sitting on. The teacher parking could be moved to the additional lots which are separated by a small lane on the north side of the school. Or the retention ponds could be moved there, and the land they now occupy could be put to good use. Where could a second addition be placed without purchasing more land in the future, or eliminating the playground, or substantially reducing the already inadequate teacher parking?

Planning with a vision for tomorrow instead of just stop-gapping for today could save millions down the road when the school board comes back to the county for yet another addition. If proper planning isn't done now, when the addition is completed, the school might - in fact probably - will still be over capacity. Although the school board has approved a contract for the building design, it means nothing until the board of commissioners approves it and provides a budget to pay the architect. Construction can still begin in January thus not delaying living up to the responsibility of providing adequate space for the students.

But whatever the decision, its time everyone played straight with the public instead of playing politics using the children and their parents as pawns. This shouldn't be about marching misinformed parents or pressured teachers before the commissioners to beg for a solution. It should be about realistically assessing the situation and putting forth a plan that will provide for ample space for a great education. And it should be done in a prudent manner that insures best use of tax dollars. Cheap today just means more expensive tomorrow.

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