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Halifax County commissioners Monday voted to allow the board chairman to sign off on two Needs-based Public School Capital Fund applications — one for the Roanoke Rapids Graded School District and the other for Weldon City Schools.

Commissioner Patrick Qualls, who made the motion, said having the chairman sign off on the applications would be contingent on a full review of them by staff and other parties who might have input or guidance.

The RRGSD is submitting an application for the construction of a new pre-K center to be located on the grounds of Manning Elementary School between the track and the current school building off Park Avenue.

Weldon, which did not make a formal presentation during the meeting, is seeking a grant for the construction of a 6-12 school on the grounds of the current high school location.

RRGSD Superintendent Julie Thompson told commissioners that the pre-K center “would provide a modern space that would accommodate 175 students.”

She said it would provide “the physical possibility for universal pre-K for Roanoke Rapids Graded School District students.”

The pre-K center, if approved through the grant process, would be a 30,918 square-foot building connected to the current structure by a breezeway.

The decision to apply for the grant comes at a time when the Clara Hearne Pre-K Center, which is 77-years-old, has served its purpose and has many structural issues.

“The well-being of today’s children affects tomorrow’s community development,” Thompson said. “Young children benefit from positive early learning experiences because they are better able to develop school readiness skills in language and literacy, thinking skills, self-control and self-confidence.”

She said research has shown that children who arrive at kindergarten are prepared to learn, perform better throughout school and complete more years of education. “A more educated workforce means higher incomes, additional public revenues and less poverty and crime. All of this means a thriving Roanoke Rapids and Halifax County that attracts businesses and jobs.”

Further research has shown that children who receive a high quality pre-K education have better attendance, fewer behavioral problems and increased chances of reading at grade level in fourth grade.

“At RRGSD we’re trying to move toward universal pre-kindergarten so that all of our students will be able to attend,” Thompson said.

At Clara Hearne, the system is only able to accommodate 116 regular education students and typically it has closer to 200 in a grade. “We do not have enough space in our Clara Hearne Early Learning Center to accommodate this number so we would like to expand Manning Elementary School to be able to accommodate 175 students.”

Should the grant be approved the system would close Clara Hearne.

“There are many structural issues with a building this old,” she said. “We deal with asbestos, floor joist issues and water intrusion issues to name a few. All of these are costly to maintain.” The water intrusion has caused some of the floors to buckle. 

The original window frames cause heating and cooling inefficiencies. “Our current building lacks a fire suppression system. Parking is a concern because parents have to park on the street and there’s no bus loop.”

Thompson said the lack of insulation in the walls also contributes to the inefficient heating and cooling. “The bathroom facilities are very outdated and in need of updates. The majority of our electrical wiring is the original. Our facility is inadequate for food service, our current classrooms are small with no storage available. We feel with the maintenance repairs and replacements that need to occur to our current pre-K and with the age of the facility we’re beyond the time of needing a more modern and safer environment for all RRGSD students.”

Thompson said the school system has noted these concerns in its five-year capital outlay list.

If approved the school system expects a bid date of July 2023 and an estimated construction start in May 2024. The estimated completion date is November 2025.

Cost of the facility is expected to be $12 million with a $600,000 local match.

Answering a question posed by board Chairman Vernon Bryant on whether the facility would eliminate the system having to pick students to attend Clara Hearne, Thompson said the new facility “would give us the physical space to do that. We had expanded this year with our current space by trying to expand with our partnership with Smart Start to get more students. We’ve also expanded our Title I funding. That meant we had to expand our local funds as well. So we’ve gone from six regular education classrooms to seven and that’s how we got to the 116 number by adding in an additional classroom.”

Robbie Clements, the system’s director of facilities and operations, said the land at Manning is suitable for the addition. “We’ve been discussing this for 10, 12 years. In constructing Manning we decided for this to be placed in the future.”

Qualls, whose children have attended Clara Hearne, said, “It’s a mold-infested building. When you walk in it’ll knock you down with the smell of mold. That’s not to say my kids didn’t get a good education there because they did but the school is well past its prime.”

Bryant said the county will expect the school system to share in the matching funds. “It won’t be that much but we will probably ask you to share some of that cost of the $600,000.”

The application is due by September 1.