School board and commissioners agreed on a $3.9 million package to help cover costs at Surf City Elementary and Penderlea School.

PENDER COUNTY -- With each Pender County school board meeting this summer, Surf City Elementary seemed to shrink. Rising construction costs, worsened by delays and a site puddled with wetlands, pushed the proposed school $1.7 million over budget by June, and the board was weighing the painful decision to cut capacity from 1,092 students to 858.

But last month the school board and Pender County Commissioners agreed on a $3.9 million package to help cover the costs of building Surf City Elementary with room for 1,213 students and reconstructing Penderlea School. Both projects are part of a $75 million school bond approved by voters in November 2014, and both had exceeded their budgets.

At their Nov. 21 meeting, commissioners gave Pender County Schools permission to proceed on the projects, and groundbreaking ceremonies are set for next week. Commissioners also approved a bid for Penderlea School that includes a new cafeteria and gym, a plan that is $3,948,240 over the project's $18,528,802 construction budget. Older plans were as much as $5.3 million over budget.

The $3,945,364 released by commissioners comes from sales tax refunds and bond sales, and the board cut costs by trimming expenses from other bond projects and finding ways to save on furniture and fixtures. Of that money, $583,670 will go to a water tank and pumping station at Penderlea. $740,000 of the sales tax rebates will be used on the Surf City project.

Chris Boney of LS3P, the architecture firm designing Surf City Elementary, said developers will not know the full cost of that project until LS3P finalizes designs this month. In early 2017, commissioners also could decide to increase the school's capacity to 1,568 students, which would add two wings to the building and grow the price tag.

"I think they realized that they needed more students," Boney said. "We've got a plan now to add 15 classrooms and we have to bid pricing for that."

"The design fee is not covered by the funds released with the notice to proceed, but the Board of County Commissioners has agreed to reimburse the Board of Education for this expense," read a statement from Superintendent Terri Cobb and schools spokeswoman Miranda Roberts. "We anticipate the cost associated with increasing the Surf City projects to capacity of 1,568 students will be available and reviewed by both boards in January."

The new schools are badly needed. Without a change, most Pender County schools will be over capacity by 2023, projections show.

Schools in the eastern part of the county are the most crowded. Last school year, Topsail Elementary was 10 percent over capacity, while North Topsail and South Topsail Elementary were both about a quarter over-full.

Even with some loose ends hanging, Boney said he's happy with this $3.9 million step forward. Commissioners and the school board had clashed for months over the projects.

"It's exciting to be able to move forward on this thing," Boney said. "It has taken a long time."

Reporter Cammie Bellamy can be reached at 910-343-2339 or Cammie.Bellamy@StarNewsOnline.com.