By Brittney Lofthouse
The Macon County Board of Commissioners have had little to no luck soliciting bids from companies willing to complete renovations and repairs to Highlands School, further delaying the project.
The one and only bid the county received for the project came in much higher than anticipated, leading commissioners to reject the bid and send the project back out for consideration. However, the county’s second attempt didn’t garner any different results, sending county leaders back to the drawing board.
During the October meeting of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, after a lengthy discussion, the board unanimously voted to combine the two pending Highlands School renovations projects – the middle school renovations that have already been partially funded and the Highlands expansion and PreK addition whose design phase is in the works – in hopes of making the project more appealing to bidders. As part of the vote taken by commissioners, the board also decided to take a less conventional approach to the process by soliciting bids from eligible Construction Managers At-Risk (CMAR).
According to North Carolina General Statute, a CMAR may perform a portion of the work only if (i) bidding produces no responsible, responsive bidder for that portion of the work, the lowest responsible, responsive bidder will not execute a contract for the bid portion of the work, or the subcontractor defaults and a prequalified replacement cannot be obtained in a timely manner, and the public entity approves of the construction manager at risk’s performance of the work.
The board’s decision to move forward with the CMAR rather than the traditional route taken for capital projects was largely supported by the need to move forward with ordering materials such as the HVAC unit and new windows for the renovations to the Highlands middle school wing. Lead time on those materials are getting longer each week and according to project architect Paul Boney, Senior Vice President of LS3P, a CMAR will help the school district avoid further cost escalation due to the rise in material costs.
Commissioner John Shearl expressed concern surrounding combining the projects considering the fact that at this juncture, the county has expressed no intent of moving forward with the Highlands expansion and PreK portion of renovations.
According to Boney, the bid package specifically states that while the two phases are combined, the county reserves the right to separate the projects at any time and terminate the contract prior to the second phase beginning.
“You’re not committing to the larger project, we’re just trying to move it forward,” Boney said. “It’s the fastest way to do that.”
Commissioner Paul Higdon shared his frustration with ongoing funding discussions with the school system saying, “I feel like we’re just the funding arm for the Board of Education a lot of the time, and that schools make up the majority of the county’s budget.”
Although Commissioner Higdon expressed displeasure in being used as the school system’s “funding arm” statutorily, by definition, the county is obligated to serve as the school system’s funding arm, as North Carolina does not allow school districts to levy a tax to generate revenue themselves.
Commissioner Shearl also shared his hesitancy to move forward with combining the projects because following meetings with residents in Highlands, he said private citizens were working to secure funding for the expansion of the school.
Highlands Board of Education representative Hilary Wilkes noted that Shearl’s assumption was incorrect and must have resulted from miscommunication, because while residents requested the design phase to be completed so funding could be secured for the project, it was never the intention for the funding to be secured privately.