Recovery director tours schools

The smell of fresh paint lingers in the air at H.M. Arndt Middle School in Hickory. The floors shine; the walls are clean; and the bathrooms are pristine.

For officials from Catawba County Schools, the new classrooms at Arndt Middle don't just represent a fresh start for teachers and students.

The construction projects are a way to boost the county's economy through job creation.

Bob Etheridge, North Carolina Office of Economic Recovery and Investment director, toured construction projects at three Catawba County Schools on Tuesday to see the school bond funding put to work.

"This is a good example of money spent wisely," Etheridge said Tuesday as he walked along the Arndt Middle grounds.

The school is undergoing a multimillion-dollar facelift that includes a refurbished gym, new office space and 12 additional classrooms.

"We're standing in a top-notch facility," Arndt principal Dr. David Fonseca told Etheridge about the middle school's science classrooms.

The classrooms are grouped together in groups of four, so students' core classes are in one location.

Other renovations are ongoing at Murray Elementary School and St. Stephens High School, both in Hickory.

Murray Elementary's $5.77-million construction project will include more than a dozen new classrooms, a media center expansion, a new school entrance and other renovations.

Construction projects, like the one at Murray Elementary, were made possible through Qualified School Construction Bonds (QSCB) from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Catawba County received more than $6 million in QSCB, and the money not spent on Murray Elementary's expansion will fund renovations at the St. Stephens High cafeteria.

Those school improvements and projects couldn't be done without the work of general contractors, subcontractors and other construction workers, which is why Etheridge said the projects are a key part of economic recovery.

"It's about providing jobs in a tough, down economy," Etheridge said.

CCS assistant superintendent of operations Steve Demiter estimated the Arndt Middle School project employed about 200 people, not including the workers who helped manufacture other products, like concrete and steel, to complete the projects.

Once the projects are completed, they will offer better facilities and more room for parents, teachers and students. Officials said those better facilities will make schools a hub for community and school gatherings and meetings.

"Schools are community centers," Etheridge said. "Really, when you think about it, a lot of people pass through these doors who aren't just students."

Etheridge, a former representative from the state's Second Congressional District and state superintendent of Public Instruction, said now is the time to complete construction projects.

He said the cost for materials and labor is low and might never be this low again.

"You're getting more bang for your buck," Etheridge said.

CCS superintendent Glenn Barger toured Arndt Middle with Etheridge, as well as CCS maintenance director Rick Sain and construction manager Kevin Moretz.

"It was a great move for Catawba County (to receive the QSCB)," Barger said. "And it was a great move for Catawba County students."