By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: February 27, 2019 | 12:30 p.m.
PRINCE GEORGE – It has been over two weeks since students and teachers at Walton Elementary School were given two extra days off as the school division works to remedy air quality and mold issues inside the nearly 60-year-old open campus facility and, even though classes have resumed and school officials have assured parents steps are being taken to prevent the issue from occurring again, some are asking county leaders to move forward on constructing a new school.
Many of those voicing their support for a new school made their positions heard during the Prince George Board of Supervisors meeting on Feb. 12, a day after Capital Fire and Water remediation services had finished much of their clean-up over nearly a dozen rooms at Walton following a series of environmental testing that found mold and other allergens in some rooms. For the people who spoke, it was their hope the county and the school board could overcome the impasse discussions surrounding the building of a new school have seemingly reached.
“We can’t let personal feelings interfere in this,” Daryl Woodley said, whose wife is a teacher at Walton. “Please show up and meet with the school board members for a new Walton Elementary School and break ground on this school.”
Talk of building a new elementary school dates back to August 2017 when the school division’s core committee presented a report to the county board detailing the need to replace both Walton and Beazley Elementary School with new facilities. At that time, committee member William Young said both buildings were “beyond their useful life,” with the hope to have an architect retained during the fall of that year to design the schools “in order to meet a completion schedule for both new elementary schools by fall of 2020.”
With less than two years left until that tentative completion goal, much of the conversations being had around the project center on its impact on the county’s taxpayers and where exactly the first of the proposed two schools would be located in the county.
Regarding location, in October 2018, the school board voted 3-2 to reject a proposal to build an elementary school that would likely become Walton along Middle Road. The day after their vote, the school board presented a design that would allow them to build a new school on the current property footprint of Walton Elementary School without the need for additional property acquisition.
County supervisors listened to the proposal but did not take any action on the matter during that meeting. In November, a group of teachers and parents spoke during the supervisors’ meeting to urge them to consider building the school at the Walton property instead of Middle Road, with those speaking citing many of the points brought up by the school board in past conversations regarding the location, such as the impact on commute times of moving the school, the increased possibility of redistricting, and moving the school wouldn’t address overcrowding at South Elementary School.
This month, those speaking reiterated those points to supervisors as they took notes and digested their remarks in the public comments period of the meeting.
“It is not reasonable to put kids from Carson on a bus to go all the way to Middle Road and making South Elementary handle all the students from the Richard Bland area,” Woodley said. “Take to heart what the school board is saying,” before asking supervisors to not let politics cloud their decision making.
“I know it is an election year but that should not be the driving force of decisions,” he continued. “The price continues to rise. Last year, it was five cents, now it is eight cents,” referring to the projected real estate tax rate impacts of the project.
In 2018, as the county prepared for the now-current fiscal year, the county administrator’s proposed budget included a five-cent real estate tax increase in order to provide the capital required for the estimated $30 million school. That tax increase was later nerfed when the school board said significant spending would not occur during FY2019.
New data presented to county leaders in December 2018 shows, as the cost of the school rises, now at roughly $32 million, so too does the projected impact on local taxpayers as estimates from the county’s financial contractors place the real estate tax increase needed around eight cents. In addition, due to the county’s ongoing memorandum of understanding with the school division, which prescribes what percentage of certain revenue pools the school division will receive as part of the county’s annual local funding, any increase would have to be doubled unless the county modifies that agreement.
A modified draft agreement was created by County Attorney Steven Micas and discussed at a summer 2018 work session. That draft did add an exception that allows revenue generated through tax increases for school capital and public safety projects to be exempt from the tenets of the memorandum of understanding. Supervisors approved the draft and it was to be sent to the school division for further feedback, but the subject has not been discussed further in public sessions of either board since that time.
In addition, supervisors have publicly stated they are committed to capping any tax increase for the project at five cents, meaning additional funding would have to be found elsewhere to make the project come to fruition.
For parents, this month’s issues at Walton reinforce the need for action now in developing a new school.
“I am glad action has been taken at Walton and I hope they continue to monitor the situation,” one parent said. “This issue highlights the need to move forward with Walton. The children are being exposed to unsafe conditions in their education facility. Make school construction a top priority and come to a consensus quickly.”
When asked, County Administrator Percy Ashcraft confirmed that the leadership of the county board and school board have met recently to discuss the project, but no public discussions have been had since the December 2018 financial presentation to supervisors. In an interview, Prince George Board of Supervisors Chairman Donald Hunter discussed the progress toward the project.
“We made a unanimous decision to put it on Middle Road and [the school board] didn’t accept it, that’s the bottom line,” he explained, adding that it is the school division’s decision of which student population moves into the school, Walton or Beazley, with school leaders having said in the past that Middle Road is an ideal location for a replacement for Beazley Elementary.
“What the name of the school is not of concern to us and they can have students from wherever they want to attend that school,” Hunter continued. “Then, they can upgrade the current Beazley to accommodate for a few years because we are not going to jump on a new school as soon as that one is finished. We can’t do that to the taxpayer because they would have to bear that burden.”
In an interview prior to the superintendent’s budget presentation earlier this month, Prince George School Board Chairman Robert Cox said, in his view, location continues to slow discussions of the school.
“We had a chair-vice chair meeting a few weeks ago and we talked a bit there, but it drew down to the point where they don’t want to budge,” he remarked, adding that an idea to build the school on Middle Road as the new Beazley Elementary then renovate the old school to become the home of Walton’s students as plans for a future school are developed, something alluded to by Hunter but remains off the table for Cox.
“Walton is the one that was prioritized and, I guess, it is showing now that it is a priority and we need to get that building moving,” he said before discussing one of the school division’s first picks for the school’s location, the Yancey property along Route 156, which supervisors rejected in summer 2018, citing the costs involved with bringing water and sewer to the area even though the school board pointed to a master plan for the site that proposed two school facilities and other amenities for the property.
For Hunter, that property, even though it is closer to South Elementary and the Carson and Richard Bland areas of the county, remains off the table for this project.
“The Yancey property is going to cost us about $6 million more to do infrastructure and other stuff,” he said. “It is something we want to do in the future, but we are not quite ready to do it yet. We are in the process of doing two major infrastructure projects right now along U.S. Route 460 and Route 156. We just can’t burden the taxpayers with all of that.”
Hunter continued, “That master plan had a library, an animal pound, and all sorts of other things but none of that has happened. The library is [at the government complex], the animal facility is on 460, so that master plan is completely shot, as far as I am concerned.”
While parents and others understand the nuances of the plans and ideas for the school, at the end of the day, those who spoke at the meeting all want something done for the students and staff at Walton.
“Action needs to be taken,” Walton parent Candace Houser said. “The staff at Walton are doing the best they can with what they are given. You need to take action and break ground on the new Walton.”
As of this report, no plans have been formally announced to discuss the school’s future on the county board’s agenda.