By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: December 31, 2018 | 12:30 p.m.
PRINCE GEORGE – As 2018 descends into the background of many people’s minds, the in-depth conversations had during the course of the year by the Prince George Board of Supervisors will certainly carry over in 2019 as the county continues to research and plan for its needs, like at least one school, and infrastructure improvements to spur new growth.
Throughout 2018, county leaders spent several meetings and work sessions discuss reviewing the proposal from Prince George County Public Schools and the school board to build two new elementary schools to replace Walton and Beazley Elementary Schools, both noted as being need of replacement due to their age and security concerns as they are both open-air facilities.
Following the school division’s core committee presentation in August of 2017, the project would return before supervisors in 2018 during the annual budget-building process as Finance Director Betsy Drewry presented a number of scenarios that showed the real estate tax implications of building none, one, or both of the schools, with each school at the time of her February 2018 report being estimated to cost just under $30 million
With that information, County Administrator Percy Ashcraft presented his budget, which featured a five-cent real estate tax increase to help finance the cost of building a single school, which, based on school division comments throughout 2018, is presumed to be Walton Elementary’s replacement.
That five cents would’ve generated $1.25 million, which would have been solely dedicated to “capital construction” costs related to building the school. In order to do that, a change to the county’s Memorandum of Understanding with the school division would have to be altered. That memorandum dictates how much of certain county revenue streams the school division is entitled to receive as part of their annual local funding.
Currently, they receive 43.1 percent of several of those streams, meaning, for every tax dollar the county takes in, the school division is to receive 43 cents of that revenue.
The proposal to raise taxes by five cents would remain on the table until late Spring when School Board Chairman Robert Cox came to supervisors to say that the tax increase could be deferred as significant spending wouldn’t occur on the project until the upcoming fiscal year.
With real estate taxes remaining untouched, the second half of the year saw another side of the school construction join the conversation – where the school will be located.
Throughout 2018, the idea was floated by the school board to build the new presumed Walton Elementary School on a piece of county-owned land on Quaker Road, known as the Yancey Tract, citing its proximity to the current student base of the school, while not creating a need for redistricting.
That idea was eventually nerfed by supervisors in July, who asked the school board to come back with an alternative location, which became Walton’s current home near the intersection of Courthouse Road and U.S. Route 460. Over the course of the summer into the fall, work sessions saw school officials and supervisors discuss the merit of placing a new school on the property.
As part of their presentation in October, school board officials explained the new school would be built behind the current building, allowing for the school to continue to operate while construction activities are underway. After the building is completed, the old school would be torn down and converted into a parking area prior to the start of that school year.
During this time, supervisors publically stated their concept of building the school along a piece of county-owned property near the I-295 overpass. For county leaders, they have stated during meetings and in interviews it is not their intent to tell the school division which school’s replacement – either Walton or Beazley – should be built on the property.
When asked, Chairman Cox said the school division doesn’t have any plans to consider moving Beazley to the Middle Road property instead of Walton, citing the core committee’s report that states the school is in the most need of replacement, along with other concerns.
“Moving [Walton Elementary School] over there is going to do one of two things,” Cox remarked in September. “We would have to re-district or we will be taking kids and bussing them deep into Beazley Elementary’s district from the Walton Elementary side of the county, which is crazy.”
Those points would later be reinforced during a November meeting when Cox provided supervisors with a preview of what redistricting could look like based on the three locations on the table – Middle Road, the current Walton Elementary School property, and a site near Scott Park known as the Buren Property.
At that time, he said if the Buren or Middle Road properties are selected, Cox said Beazley, South, and Harrison Elementary Schools would be impacted. If the Yancey property were chosen for a new Walton, it would only affect South Elementary School, noting it would help to remove the trailers from use at the school.
“The approximate increase to travel time to the Buren property would be 18 minutes,” Cox said. “Middle Road would be a 20-minute increase and the Yancey property would be a seven-minute increase.”
The school board has also floated the idea of a land swap where the school division would receive the Yancey Tract and the county would get the Walton property once a new school is built at the Yancey site. According to county documents, given the site’s proximity to commercial growth and its access to I-95, I-295, and U.S. Route 460, the site could be a future asset to the county’s bottom line.
“Placing the property back on the tax rolls, receiving future tax payments and providing an initial sale amount to the community outweighs the decision to keep this property as an elementary school when alternative locations are available,” a memo from the county detailed. That property has an estimated value of $2.16 million.
Supervisors have said there is a benefit to converting the current home of Walton into an economic asset for Prince George County.
“If we could sell this land as a business-zoned area,” then-Chairman Alan Carmichael remarked, “it can bring economic development and revenue into Prince George County. That sale wouldn’t go into our contingency fund, it would go straight to offset the cost of the school. I know this is going to be hard on the taxpayers, but if we can sell this land, we can go do the renovation, build the new school and do the demolition of the old building and let’s sell what we can sell to the businesses.”
Entering 2019, the school board narrowly voted to reject supervisors’ proposal to build the new school on Middle Road, instead presenting their idea to have the school built at the current home of Walton. In November, a number of teachers, parents, and others came to speak in support of building a new Walton Elementary School at the Courthouse Road location.
Since that time, neither side has discussed the matter during regular meetings.
Supervisors, as they prepare to enter the budget building process, will also have to weigh the impact of the increasing cost of the project. Prior to the adoption of the FY2018 budget, the estimated cost of each school was $29 million. As of late 2018, that cost is closer to $35 million.
With that figure in the minds of supervisors, they will now have to work to determine how to fund the project. During a summer work session and in later meetings, supervisors have stated they are committed to capping any tax increase for the project at five cents.
In order to pay for the rest of the project, alternative funding would have to be used, such as drawing from the county’s fund balance.
Finally, any tax increase would have to be nearly doubled in order to generate the needed funding for the project due to the current structure of the county’s MOU with the school division, requiring a change in the document. Despite a draft of the MOU having been reviewed by supervisors in the summer, nothing has been changed with the MOU to allow for funds generated by tax increases to pay for school or public safety capital projects has been formally approved by either board.
County leaders are expected to begin their budget deliberations during the course of January and February.