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After Years Of Challenges, Jones County Opens State-Of-The-Art School

Cole del Charco
The new Jones County K-12 School.

Jones County has seen its share of destruction and economic challenges. It was one of the poorest counties in North Carolina, even before Hurricane Florence swept through last September, decimating two of the county’s six school buildings. Students in the district missed 25 days of school.

Nearly a year later, things are looking up in Jones County.

“Welcome to the most state-of-the-art school in North Carolina,” said Jones County High School Principal Bryce Marquis at the dedication of a new, 123,000-square-foot, multi-grade school building. “This school -- our school -- is a reflection of the resilience, determination and character of the people of Jones County.”

Credit Cole del Charco / WUNC
There are 1,200 solar panels on top of the school, which help produce more energy than the building needs.

Students from kindergarten through high school will be streaming through the doors in the coming days. It’s a hub for community gatherings, and has state-of-the-art, environmentally-friendly mechanicals.

It also offers a huge emotional lift to a struggling community.  

“This is the third trip that I have made to Jones County since Hurricane Florence hit,” said Governor Roy Cooper during the unveiling. “I am glad that this time it is for a celebration.”

The need for the new building pre-dated Hurricane Florence. A new school had not been built in Jones County for more than 50 years.

Schools in North Carolina are mostly funded by local governments, and in a place like rural Jones County, with a limited economic base, that’s a problem.

“We went to the county commissioners a couple of times and in order to fund a high school -- just the high school was needed was going to add 30 cents to the tax dollar,” said Billy Griffin, president of the Jones County School Board.

Credit Cole del Charco / WUNC
There are three wings in the building, one for the elementary, middle and high school.

So the General Assembly stepped in, and in 2017 created the Public School Capital Fund -- a need-based grant program to try to solve the problem. It gives money to counties in financial distress to help fund school construction projects.

“We created a needs-based construction fund in the lottery,” said State Senator Harry Brown. “As the lottery grows all those dollars will go towards that.”

In Jones County, the state kicked in $29 million, the county added $5 million and Firstfloor Energy Positive, a design and architecture firm, provided the other $14 million. Firstfloor Energy Positive owns the building for the next seven years and leases it to the district. After that local government takes ownership.

“This is something that shouldn’t just be possible in Raleigh or Charlotte, this is should be in every county in North Carolina,” said State School Superintendent Mark Johnson.

Credit Cole del Charco / WUNC
Touchscreens in the main hallway show how efficient the building's energy use is.

Johnson hopes these kinds of partnerships can lead to more new schools being built in districts which haven’t had a new building in decades.

But the funding solution isn’t the only unique thing about this school.

“This building was designed to be the most efficient building -- probably the most efficient school that there is,” said Jerry Marshall, the energy manager for Firstfloor.

In a few months, Marshall says, the building will generate all the energy it needs and about 70 percent more.

At the building’s dedication, students from the Jones High School Energy Wise Club proudly showed off the facility.

“So I’ve basically been walking people through the lungs and the heart of the school, like the brain of the school,” said junior Briana Powell.

Credit Cole del Charco / WUNC
Middle and High School students in the EnergyWise club prepare to give tours of energy-efficient and unique aspects of the school.

She points out the geothermal wells under the school that provide heating and cooling, the solar panels on top of the school, a water filtration system, and dynamic air cleaner.

“It basically takes in all the bad air and cleans it really good and then puts it out,” Powell explained.

This facility in Jones County is the first to open under the Public School Capital Fund. The annual appropriation from the Fund is expected to grow to $307 million by 2028.

When those buildings open, they are likely to provoke a similar emotional response, like the one offered by Jones County Teacher of the Year Suddona Murrell at the dedication.

“This is a huge day,” she said. “We should have a parade, there should be bands -- this is a celebration. And again I say, this was a long time coming.”

Cole del Charco is an audio producer and writer based in Durham. He's made stories for public radio's All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Marketplace. Before joining Due South, he spent time as a freelance journalist, an education and daily news reporter for WUNC, and a podcast producer for WFAE in Charlotte.
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