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When Watauga High School opened in 2010, Governor Bev Perdue declared that the school was "what education is all about."  If education is all about using millions in taxpayer dollars to build palaces with classrooms, then many districts in North Carolina are doing a fine job of "educating."

Watauga High School was (and still is) the most expensive school ever built in North Carolina. The final price tag was $79.5 million, but Wake County just opened a school that gave Watauga High a run for its money.  If I am not mistaken, the $75 million Rolesville High School is the second most expensive school built in North Carolina.  Are $75+ million high schools the new normal?  It depends on who you ask.

In North Carolina, there are examples of districts that build new, high-quality schools for a fraction of what districts such as Wake, Watauga, Guilford, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg spend.  In 2006, I wrote about the success of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools (WS/FCS) building program in a study titled "The Forsyth Formula: Other School Districts Should Learn These Construction Principles."  Taxpayers in Forsyth County should thank their lucky stars that nothing has changed.  

I recently toured Walkertown High School, a beautiful facility that bid in 2009 for just over $125 per square foot.  In comparison, Rocky Mount High School, which has roughly the same student capacity as Walkertown, bid a few months later for nearly $140 per square foot, a difference of approximately $15 million.  By the time Walkertown High School opened in 2012, the final cost was $33 million. 

Give the WS/FCS facilities experts the same $75 million used to build Rolesville High School, and they’ll build you two outstanding high school facilities.  Two for the price of one ain’t bad.

WS/FCS builds school after school for millions less than their counterparts in other districts.  Compare the cost of Walkertown High School to a proposed high school in neighboring Guilford County, for example.  The cost of a proposed Guilford County high school located near the Piedmont-Triad Airport was between $70 and $80 million.  In January, the Guilford County Board of Education decided to scrap plans for the school, which, I suspect, would have overtaken Watauga High School as the most expensive K-12 school ever built in North Carolina.

How does the WS/FCS facilities program differ from those of other school districts?  I think the answer lies in a mindset that is increasingly difficult to find in school district building programs — value.

School board members and district staff champion value, and the concept clearly rubs off on those who work with them.  Just ask Winston-Salem architect L. Wesley Curtis Jr., who designed Walkertown High School, or any of the architects, site planners, builders, and contractors who work with WS/FCS.  Perhaps one day it will rub off on the rest of the state.  Until then, the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools will continue to have one of the best school facilities programs in North Carolina.

Facts and Stats

Five most expensive new school construction projects since 2009

School District

School Name

Bid Date

Cost/sq. ft.


Pollard Middle School




Rolesville High School




Douglass Elementary




EC West School




Jamestown Middle School



Five least expensive new school construction projects since 2009

School District

School Name

Bid Date

Cost/sq. ft.


Patrios Elementary School




Winkler Middle School




Allen Elementary School




Career Center High School




Hickory Ridge Middle School



Source: NC Department of Public Instruction, School Planning Division, "Costs of Recent NC School Projects," Tuesday, August 20, 2013.

Education Acronym of the Week

WS/FCS — Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools

Quote of the Week

"With a budget of $75 million, the 349,000-square-foot Rolesville High School dwarfs all prior construction projects in Wake County school history. It’s both the first four-story high school in Wake and the first designed from scratch to hold more than 2,200 students. It also incorporates design features not previously used in the district’s construction plans."

— T. Keung Hui, "Wake County opening its biggest and most expensive high school," News & Observer, August 24, 2013 

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