CAMDEN — Camden County school officials intend to use all proceeds from the $33 million school construction bond on the Nov. 3 ballot to build a new high school.
Camden schools Superintendent Joe Ferrell drove that point home during a public meeting held in the current Camden County High School cafeteria Tuesday to explain the high school project.
Ferrell said language for the bond referendum on the Nov. 3 Camden ballot is mandated by state and federal laws. For that reason, the ballot question mentions “renovation” as well as construction of new school facilities. That’s despite the fact the Camden Board of Education has made clear its plan to use all of the bond proceeds — if the referendum passes — to construct a new high school.
The school board is also scheduled to adopt a resolution Friday, Oct. 15 that will clearly state its intent to use all the bond money toward construction of the new high school.
Ferrell also explained that the $12.3 million needs-based school facilities grant the county has been awarded by the state is “project-specific” — meaning it can only be used for construction of the new high school.
School board Chairman Christian Overton said when asked Wednesday that by adopting the resolution, the board simply wants to clarify its intent to use all of the bond money for the new high school. He said some board members have started getting questions about the wording of the ballot question.
Camden voters have started filling out mail-in ballots and one-stop, early voting starts Friday, Oct. 15 — the same date the school board plans to adopt its resolution.
Overton also confirmed that if the bond referendum is approved the board plans to break ground on the new high school in April and have the building finished in 2022.
Based on interest rates and other financial terms used in the planning process, it is expected that the tax increase necessary to cover the cost of the $33 million bond referendum will not exceed 10 cents on the property tax rate.
To repay the bond, Camden commissioners would need to increase the county’s tax rate from 75 cents per $100 of property valuation to 85 cents.
Local resident David Owens asked a number of questions about the high school project during Tuesday’s meeting. Since the board is already looking to spend more than $33 million, Owens asked why it doesn’t go ahead and spend what’s needed to include an auditorium. He noted this is likely to be a unique chance to borrow money at such a low interest rate.
Owens also questioned whether the 800-student capacity planned for the new high school shouldn’t be increased to accommodate even more growth. He also asked why the project’s cost couldn’t be reduced if, for example, its planned gym wasn’t downsized from its proposed 1,200-seat capacity.
Rick Ott of M.B. Kahn Construction, who was on hand to help answer questions about plans for the building, said the gymnasium capacity and a number of other standards are set by the state. He said those standards probably would need to be maintained in order for the school’s plans to pass a state review.
Ott also said the school board removed the auditorium and some other items to reduce the school’s cost by about $10 million. That was needed, he said, to keep the property tax rate increase from exceeding 10 cents.
School board member Jason Banks agreed the tax impact had been a major concern for the board.
“For us, a lot of our discussion revolved around trying to hit that sweet spot of not going over a 10-cent tax increase,” Banks said.
Ott said the school’s current conceptual design is about 119,000 square feet, which is the minimum size for an 800-student high school under state school construction standards.
As the conceptual design is developed into a final plan, the school board can provide additional opportunity for public input into the planning process, Ott said.
In an interview after Tuesday’s meeting, Owens said he plans to study the bond referendum question more before deciding how he will vote.
Other members of the public who attended the meeting said they plan to support the referendum.
Ferrell’s presentation also noted that the new high school will have a ripple effect by creating additional capacity at all other schools in the district, accommodating growth in student population.
The plan is to use the current high school for grades 6-8 and place some of the elementary grades at the current Camden Middle School, opening up capacity at all schools.
Three additional public information sessions on the school project are slated for Oct. 13 at South Mills Fire Department, 127 Keeter Barn Road in South Mills; Oct. 20 at Camden County High School in the cafeteria; and Oct. 27 at South Camden Fire Department, 1061 NC Highway 343 South in Shiloh. All the meetings begin at 6:30 p.m.