FUQUAY-VARINA — When Lincoln Heights Elementary School was built, John F. Kennedy was president, astronaut John Glenn hadn’t yet orbited the earth, and Medicare didn’t exist.
Fast forward 52 years, and the school is showing its age.
Rain beats down on the old corrugated metal roof, nearly drowning out the voice of ESL teacher Stephanie Gromaski. The smell of mold clings to the carpet in her classroom, despite multiple cleanings, and roof leaks have destroyed expensive smartboards.
The school’s old heating and cooling system works on a whim and a prayer. Pipes leak. In one of the boys’ restrooms, a broken latrine is covered with plastic and masking tape because it’s beyond repair.
Lincoln Heights Elementary isn’t the only school in southwestern Wake County in need of major work. The area has several older schools, some that face issues of overcrowding along with leaking roofs.
Voters will decide Tuesday whether to approve an $810 million school construction bond issue. The money would bring some much-needed relief to schools in Fuquay-Varina and beyond, school leaders say.
Thirteen schools in Apex, Fuquay-Varina and Holly Springs would see about $12.6 million in repairs, including new heating and cooling units, furniture, electrical work, plumbing and roofs.
Another $26.8 million would go to major renovations at Lincoln Heights Elementary and Apex High School.
In addition, southwestern Wake would gain five new schools – one elementary school apiece in Fuquay-Varina, Holly Springs and Apex, a middle school in Apex and a high school on the Apex/Cary border.
Fuquay-Varina Middle and High schools – which are also aging – were removed from the original list of schools slated for major renovations and were added instead to the system-upgrades list.
Fuquay-Varina High would get $8 million, and Fuquay-Varina Middle School would get $1.8 million in improvements, mostly for heating and cooling systems and interior finishes.
“What usually drives this thing is the age of the facilities and the amount of growth that is happening,” said said Joe Desormeaux, assistant superintendent for facilities for Wake County schools.
Function and safety
Audra Holland attended Lincoln Heights as a student; now she works as the school’s front-office clerk. She has seen some add-ons over the years, but the school is mostly the same.
She’s the one who handles work-order requests from teachers, and there are many.
“There are a lot of maintenance issues I see,” Holland said. “Especially about heating and cooling – things that aren’t going to be fixed by replacing a part.”
Third-grade teacher Dawn Vinson said the inconsistent HVAC system makes it hard for students to stay focused. And condensation from the faulty unit is ruining her smartboard’s projector.
“In the whole building, one room will run freezing and in another it’s boiling,” Vinson said. “There’s the smell of mold.”
And then there’s the issue of security. Classrooms for third- through fifth-graders are in separate buildings. If the school has to be locked down, those students wouldn’t have access to the cafeteria.
Exterior doors on campus lock automatically, so students must travel in pairs between buildings, with keys in hand.
“One of the most important things about this referendum is also about improving safety,” said Craig Matthews, interim principal of Lincoln Heights Elementary.
Under the bond issue, Lincoln Heights would get nearly $21.7 million. The original parts of the campus that were built in 1961 would be demolished, along with additions from 1965 and 1975.
The school would get new classrooms, a multipurpose room, a cafeteria and areas for staff. It would also get an updated media center, pre-kindergarten classrooms and a new roof for one building.
Work could start in 2016 and be completed in 2018. During construction, which would be done in phases, students would be placed in modular classrooms, Desormeaux said.
Construction on a new Apex middle school off Humie Olive Road on the Apex Friendship High School campus could start in 2016.
A new high school on Roberts Road, on the border of Cary and Apex, could start construction in 2015 and open in 2017. The school would serve Apex High School students while that school undergoes renovations.
The $5.1 million slated for upgrades at Apex High School would only be a start. Another bond issue would likely be needed before major construction would begin.
Eventually, the school could get new classrooms, along with a new cafeteria and gymnasium and an updated media center.
Apex High was built in 1975, and it isn’t big enough to serve the roughly 2,500 students who attend. Principal Matt Wight can’t hold a school-wide assembly; the auditorium only holds about 250 students. School performances and rallies have to take place in shifts.
During lunch, students spill out into the courtyard and gymnasium lobby because they can’t all fit in the cafeteria, despite three lunch shifts and upperclassmen who leave campus to eat.
Modular units have taken over the space that once housed the school’s tennis courts. The tennis team commutes to Cary for practice, and tennis is no longer offered as part of physical education classes at the school, Wight said.
The needs list goes on: The public-address system doesn’t work school-wide. About 40 to 50 students pack into a mobile unit for choir practice. Some of the science labs date back to the 1970s and don’t have sinks that work. Poor internet access limits data-sharing, Wight said.
Even with some limitations, Apex High has maintained a a good reputation for academics, arts and athletics, but Wight said he’s not sure how much longer the school can keep that up under current circumstances.
The school was considered and then excluded from two previous bond packages, Wight said.
“Getting this bond passed is critical. ... We’ve been waiting patiently for some relief,” he said. “You can only do so much for so long. The key to quality education is that we have good facilities.”
Wight knows this bond issue wouldn’t solve all the school’s problems. Permanent fixes would be years down the road.
“I see it as a down payment,” he said. “It shows to me that we’re next in line and Wake County is committed.”
Ramos: 919-460-2609; Twitter: @AlianaCaryNews