By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: November 3, 2019 | 12:30 p.m.
PRINCE GEORGE – In front of a near-capacity crowd of Walton Elementary School parents, teachers, and concerned residents last week, supervisors unanimously approved allocating $1 million to Prince George Schools to allow the school division to begin key design and engineering activities as they prepare for the development of a new elementary school.
The action came just over a week after Prince George Schools Superintendent Dr. Lisa Pennycuff made a detailed presentation at Prince George High School that laid out revised cost estimates, an approximate timetable for moving into the completed school, and a planned request to the county board of supervisors seeking “a financial commitment of $1.8 million” to begin the design phase of a planned new elementary school’s development.
During a work session prior to supervisors’ regular session, the superintendent walked through the same presentation that was delivered to the county school board and parents at the high school a week prior, which detailed the project’s history, dating back to the spring of 2017 when the school system’s core committee found a need to replace two of the county’s oldest elementary schools – Walton and Beazley Elementary – with a pair of 750-student schools and to look at a possible addition to or renovation of Prince George High School to better accommodate student enrollment capacity and modernize the facility.
Two years after that core committee presented those recommendations to the then-seated board of supervisors, the proposed new school’s program size has been increased to 850 students, with Pennycuff explaining their architectural partners at Moseley Architects recommends building new schools “at 85 percent capacity” so there is room for future growth. At Walton Elementary, whose student population is expected to move into the new school upon completion, the school currently has 570 students currently being educated inside a building with a design capacity of 600, placing the school at 95 percent capacity.
Last week’s board of supervisors meeting was nearly standing room only as dozens of parents, teachers, and others packed into the county boardroom to voice their support for efforts to begin development of a new elementary school that is slated to be the replacement to the aging Walton Elementary School, which has had a series of air quality issues throughout 2019. (Michael Campbell)
Applying the principles of designing a school at 85 percent capacity as presented by the school division’s architectural firm, over 720 students could be educated inside a building that had a design capacity of 850 students. With over 150 more students that could be served within that 85-percent capacity threshold an 850-student school would offer, Pennycuff told county leaders this would also allow the school division to shift some students from South Elementary to the new Walton Elementary to help relieve overcrowding at the school, which, according to enrollment information, has a capacity of 450 students and 503 students enrolled, which has required the use of trailers, referred to as “educational cottages” by school system leaders, to help bridge the gap in their space needs.
The increase in the new school’s program size would see the school’s overall footprint grow by 4,300 square feet and the addition of four, 800-square foot classrooms, made up of a Pre-K and a self-contained special education classroom, along with two regular education classrooms. Additionally, Pennycuff noted the additional square footage would increase the price tag of the project by $1 million.
Echoing her remarks earlier this month, Pennycuff noted there is a price difference in waiting to finalize a site for the new school. Several weeks earlier, Prince George County Board Chairman Donald Hunter confirmed the county and Fort Lee were in talks about some form of land transaction for the purpose of developing a school on near the base’s A Avenue gate but, required approvals on the deal, which would involve the Federal government, wouldn’t be attained until late 2020.
With that information, Pennycuff explained, if a site wasn’t finalized until March of 2021, allowing for ample time for that land transaction to be completed, the project’s total cost would rise by roughly $2.1 million due to inflation to $35 million. On the other side, if a site were to be finalized by March of next year, the school would cost an estimated 32.9 million.
That site acquisition date would also affect the project’s completion timetable, with runs showing a January 2023 move-in date for the new school if a site is finalized by March of next year and a September 2023 move-in if a site is selected by January of 2021, which would be in line with the Fort Lee site approval timelines provided by the county.
Given this information, Pennycuff during her last two weeks of presentations to the school board and board of supervisors has stressed the school division’s desire to be proactive, seeking county funding to help start architectural and engineering services for the school development as a final site is determined, while also stressing, “The price of waiting” for the Fort Lee transaction, which the school division confirmed would be either a land grant or century-long land lease, “increases the cost of the school” by $2.1 million, adding that “funds may be saved” if the county were to accelerate the project’s development.
While no formal votes have been recorded by either board in regards to support of the Fort Lee property as the site of a new elementary school, in her presentation, Pennycuff notes that the land transaction with Fort Lee “has support” from both the school board and board of supervisors.
Prior to their funding action, school board chair Robert Cox, Jr. praised supervisors for moving forward with holding a joint meeting of both boards last week while also stressing the potential impacts of building the new school that is presumed to be Walton Elementary’s replacement along Middle Road, which both he and his board have been opposed to since supervisors voted in 2018 to make the site their top pick for the new school.
“If Fort Lee is the choice, that would be a Walton school,” the chairman remarked, referring to enrollments that would see the school continue to represent the current make-up of the existing Walton Elementary School, which is 66 percent county students and 34 percent military-connected students. “If we go to Middle Road, it will result in five schools having to be redistricted.”
Since 2018, the county and school board have discussed a number of sites prior to the revelation of the county’s pursuit of a land transaction with Fort Lee, with Middle Road near the Interstate 295 overpass, the Buren property, which is a short distance from Beazley Elementary School along Courthouse Road, the Yancey property along Route 156, and the current site of Walton Elementary School near Courthouse Road and U.S. Route 460. Over time, the Yancey property was rejected by supervisors for consideration for the school and talks regarding the idea of building at the Buren site, current Walton, and Middle Road have largely stalled.
In past conversations, Cox has called Middle Road an ideal location for Beazley Elementary School’s replacement. Regarding Fort Lee, the school board chair said the potential location does provide benefits, such as water and sewer access and being close to the base’s military families, who make up 34 percent of the student body, while also saying during this month’s school board member that the Yancey property remains his top pick for the new school and the current Walton Elementary site as a runner-up location.
As the school division continues to fight to stay ahead of “chronic” air quality issues at Walton Elementary School following recent bouts of mold spores and elevated CO2 levels that has resulted in students being shuffled to other spaces and classrooms having to be closed for cleanings, at times, on multiple occasions, parents in attendance for last week’s meeting shared their stories in an effort to put a face to the challenges students, educators, and Walton families are living daily.
Depending on when a site is secured for a new school, the price may fluctuate by roughly $2 million due to inflation and the amount of time that would pass between the dates, which considers selecting a site by late winter 2020 or by January 2021, with the latter bringing a higher price tag. (Michael Campbell)
“I really believe that our children and our teachers’ health, safety, and welfare are in your hands for a new school to be built,” Deborah Cooper, a Walton parent shared. “My two children are asthmatic and I cannot count how many days they missed from school. If my children get sick, then they are falling behind in their education so I just plead with you to find another alternative besides Fort Lee because we don’t have the time because and children’s lives are literally at risk. When I send my daughter to school, I don’t know if she is going to come home sick and have to miss school.”
Jennifer Allie, the parent of a first grader at Walton Elementary, said she was anxious about sending her child to Walton solely based on the school’s open-campus layout but she was reassured by the work of the school’s administration to keep students safe but she was “disheartened” that the county’s local government is housed in a newer building built in the 1990s and students are still being educated in schools that date back to the 1960s.
“The fact that we stand here in this nice wonderful building that Prince George has somehow paid for and we have students and teachers in a building that they have already deemed suitable and has mold,” she remarked. “This had this issue back in February and they had to stay home for a couple of days and, not only does that create a hardship for families but, it creates a hardship for teachers and here we are still eight months later discussing whether or not to replace the school and what are we going to do and where are we going to put it.”
“I would like to say thank you but something obviously needs to happen for these kids because this is our future. These teachers work very hard in this environment and this really shouldn’t be a matter of discussion, in my opinion. At this point we have discussed and discussed and we need to act and execute,” Allie closed.
In regards to funding, according to the school division’s presentation, again, the speed at which a site is selected, either by March of 2020 or January of 2021, will determine how much funding is needed in upcoming fiscal years to pay for the multi-million project.
Copyright 2019 by Womack Publishing
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