By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: September 7, 2018 | 12:30 p.m.
PRINCE GEORGE – Even though the doors to the county’s schools opened back up for session this week, marking the end of summer vacation for students, members of both the Prince George County School Board, the school division, and the Prince George Board of Supervisors have been doing their own version of homework as they worked closely a number of key projects that will have short- and long-term impacts on the school system and county.
In an interview, Prince George Schools Superintendent Renee Williams spoke about the county and school division’s working relationship as they work through the details of several projects, chief among them, the construction of two new elementary schools in the county.
Work on this project dates back to at least this time last year as members of the school division’s core committee made a detailed presentation about the need to replace Walton and Beazley Elementary Schools with new buildings in order to deal with issues mainly centered around the two facilities’ age – both having been built in the 1960s – and access to the buildings as they are both open-air schools, which are traditionally harder to lock down during an emergency situation.
Since that August 2017 presentation, the county, the school board, and the school division have been engaged in discussions back and forth in regards to the school, including during the early Spring when a tax increase of five cents was proposed to help pay for one of two $30 million, 750-students schools and later when all parties agreed to take a slower approach in building the school, thus delaying the tax increase until such a time where significant spending would occur on the project.
One year later, all three parties continued to work together to choose the best location for that one school to be built, with several locations, including county-owned land on Middle Road and Courthouse Road, along with the current site at Walton Elementary, being considered during direct, but respectful debate.
“The Prince George Board of Supervisors has recognized the fact that we need to replace an elementary school,” Williams said in an interview leading up to an August 14 meeting where both sides were slated to decide on a final location for what would be a new Walton Elementary School, the school determined to be most in need of a replacement as compared to Beazley Elementary. “We may not have come to a consensus on a site but we are working on that and they are in favor of us building that school.”
The school division, school board and county are expected to continue their discussions ahead of supervisors’ next meeting on September 11, where the matter of the school’s new location will be taken up again after being tabled in August.
In addition, she also spoke about the return over $1 million in carryover funds from the 2016-2017 fiscal year to help make capital improvements and key purchases when talking about the school division’s relationship with the county. Initially, in February, the school board sent a request to have $2.7 million in unspent funds given back to cover a number of costs, including $1.4 million, or $700,000 each, for security and technology related costs, and several thousand more to cover the cost of bonuses for employees.
School Board Chairman Robert Cox explains to supervisors why they believe the current Walton Elementary School property is the best option available of those in consideration for a new school. (Michael Campbell)
After a debate between the three entities that spanned several weeks and a tabled vote, the school division was eventually given a total of $1.6 million in unspent funds, roughly half of what the school board had asked for. Of that money, $254,000 was carried over to this fiscal year to pay for employee health insurance costs.
In early August, the county also conceded and granted a request made by the school division during the conversation about carryover funding by using much of the rest of those funds that weren’t reallocated to the school division to satisfy an outstanding utility fund loan. Through the board’s action, $654,380 of the unspent funds, which were in the county’s general fund balance, were applied to the loan, thus eliminating the debt.
Along with that, those carryover dollars helped pay for key improvements that were made during the summer break while students were away.
“Supervisors were very supportive in returning some of our 2016-2017 carryover funds because, with these funds, we were able to make some capital improvements,” she said. “Our track team had a state-champion caliber 4×4 team but they couldn’t run on our track because our track needed repairs. So by allowing us to carry those funds over, we were able to repair the track.”
In addition, Williams said she has been pleased with how the county has helped with the school division’s efforts to increase digital learning in the classroom as they work to develop and implement a plan that truly guides what the digital educational future holds for Prince George County Public Schools.
“The board [of supervisors] has really helped us in this process in the area of sustainability as far as our computers,” she explained. “Right now, we are on an eight-year replacement cycle for our computers. With the assistance of the board of supervisors, we are looking at reducing that cycle from eight years to five years and we are trying to make sure we have funding in our budget to do so.”
The superintendent also praised the county and its partnership with local power provider Prince George Electric Cooperative and its fiber-to-the-home project. In 2017, supervisors approved allocating $1 million in taxpayer funds to the county Industrial Development Board, who then used the funds to create a grant that PGEC was provided to help fund their broadband internet project, with the agreement requiring 500 new customers to be brought online by July 2021. The schools also see a benefit from the project as the contract between the county, IDA, and PGEC Enterprises, the internet service arm of the cooperative, requires the company to construct and make fiber optic cable connections available to all public structures owned and operated by the county that is within 1,000 feet of a VDOT road, including schools, libraries, fire stations, and wireless communication towers, among others.
When asked, Williams said the county’s willingness to work with PGEC to help bring internet to more homes in the county helps the school division approach its goal of every student being able to access their curriculum online, whether they are at home or at school.
“With the county working with Prince George Electric Cooperative and putting that capability in parts of the county that we need it in, that will allow us, once we implement that one-to-one, students will be able to access this curriculum no matter where they are in the county,” she said. “Right now that isn’t possible but we are hopeful as the county and PGEC work with that program, when we are ready to implement our one-to-one, that will no longer be an issue, so we are excited for that.”