County, Fort Lee working together on land transaction for new school site

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: October 15, 2019 | 7:30 p.m. 

PRINCE GEORGE – Several months after leaders of the school board confirmed they had reached a consensus on a potential location with county supervisors, that location was finally revealed to the public Tuesday’s meeting of the Prince George Board of Supervisors as being near the A Avenue gate of the Fort Lee military installation.

During Tuesday evening’s meeting, Prince George Board of Supervisors Chairman Donald Hunter read a prepared statement where he confirmed the county had been in talks with representatives from Fort Lee regarding “the possibility of the Department of the Army donating property for the purpose of a new elementary school,” specifically property that sits on both sides of the A Avenue roundabout at the intersection of Route 630 and Route 634.

While the specifics of the proposed transaction between Fort Lee and the county were not revealed in his statement, such as specific location and acreage of the site in question, Hunter said, “the transaction appears for final approvals to possibly be made in the latter part of calendar year 2020.”

“This location appears to have the needed infrastructure to serve a new elementary school. Its location would strengthen an already solid partnership between Prince George County and Fort Lee,” he remarked. “The board of supervisors looks forward to moving ahead with this project and providing a safe and modern facility for young people to learn and teachers to teach in an effective manner.”

In June, Prince George School Board Chairman Robert Cox, Jr. told The Prince George Journal he and his board has “had good conversations” with supervisors chairman Hunter and vice-chairman Floyd Brown, Jr., adding they had received a proposal for a piece of property from the county and, after discussions, the school board agreed with the location. When asked at the time, Cox said he was unable to disclose the location, but he did say “it is a different location” than sites that had been proposed during the course of the project’s development and discussion since 2017: a property along Route 156 known as the Yancey property, Middle Road near the Interstate 295 overpass, and the current site of Walton Elementary School along Courthouse Road.

Last week, Hunter confirmed the property alluded to by Cox in June was indeed the site near the A Avenue roundabout just outside of Fort Lee’s A Avenue gate, roughly 2.5 miles due north of Walton’s current location. Following last week’s meeting, the chairman shared his thoughts on the two boards finding a consensus of the proposed school’s location.

“We heard about this location some time ago and the chairs and vice-chairs met and talked about this location and they seemed to be very encouraged about that location because of where it was, it is convenient to Fort Lee so, some of their population would be there, to be determined by the schools, of course, not by us,” he remarked. “What we like about it is that [it has] water and sewer and the fact that it is a convenient site in terms of traffic so we are very excited about and Fort Lee is excited about being able to be a good neighbor there so this just continues our partnership with Fort Lee and the schools.”

In June, school board chairman Cox described the then-undisclosed A Avenue location as “an area that will be an advantage to both sides” and “an advantage to both boards” and would echo those thoughts in an interview last week.

“The advantage to [the location] is it is close to Fort Lee so [it may] reduce transportation costs and time for the Walton school to be right there,” Cox remarked. “Even though Walton is not that much further up the road but, you can run kids out of the gate. It may, this is just me thinking, [let us] see a point that Fort Lee would be willing to transport their own kids off-post to that school. It is always an option if we get into another transportation crisis that we have been in with buses, we could always reach out to Fort Lee and say, ‘Hey, could you help us out for awhile? You have buses and trained drivers. Could you help transport kids to that school for us for the interim until we get some drivers trained?’”

The school board chair continued, “It opens up so many options for us to work with Fort Lee. Fort Lee was excited when they came to us about forming a partnership because Fort Lee has always been a partner to us.”

During the course of the discussions surrounding where a new elementary school would be constructed, school board representatives were steadfast in their alliance with a 2017 core committee report from the school division that found Walton to be most in need of replacement, reiterating over the last two years that the school, which was built in the 1960s and is an open-campus-style facility, is beyond its useful life and would be the first school to be replaced, with Beazley Elementary School, near the county government complex and of similar age and design, being next in line. To that end, the location of the first of two proposed new elementary schools was a sticking point for several months as proposals were made for various locations a site along Middle Road near the I-295 being the most recent location disclosed as county supervisors’ pick for a new school, leaving the decision of what student body moves into said school, be it Walton or Beazley’s, in the hands of the school division, before the June revelation by Cox of a site being eyed that differed from previously discussed locations.

In earlier conversations with The Prince George Journal, Cox has said the Middle Road property is an ideal location for Beazley Elementary School’s replacement whenever its construction should take place and stressed moving Walton Elementary’s population to a school built on Middle Road, roughly four miles from its current site, could result in redistricting.

Throughout 2019, both boards talked about the importance of collaboration and the exchange of ideas, which was evident during this process when supervisors presented the proposal of receiving a donation of land from Fort Lee and during the summer when the school board provided information on research they had done into alternative funding avenues, such as the PPEA, known as the Public-Private Education Infrastructure Act even though supervisors would state following a presentation that it was their belief using PPEA-style financing was not an option for the county as it is commonly geared toward localities with lower bond ratings, among other considerations. Hunter said communication between the boards and, now, Fort Lee is critical.

“You need to talk and understand where each other is coming from,” he remarked, adding that there were conversations about what student populations could be served in a school at the A Avenue location and it was important to leave those details to school division leaders, given their expertise and understanding in the subject matter.

“That is not for us to decide,” the chairman continued. “We found a spot that we thought was suitable to them. We liked the spot and Fort Lee is happy to donate, give, or lease the property to us to use for an extended period. We are excited about our relationship with the school board.”

In terms of what is next for the county, Hunter said they remain engaged with Fort Lee as the base and its representatives in the Department of the Army work toward a possible land transfer with Prince George, noting in his prepared statement that the base said they were “comfortable letting the public know” this idea was being considered, even though the approvals may not come until the latter portions of next year.

“When you are dealing with the federal government, they have certain avenues they have to take and things they have to do to make sure all their I’s are dotted and the T’s are crossed so before they can make any transaction to us, they have to make sure, but they feel comfortable that it is going to flow,” the chairman said

He added that the next thing that needs to be done is allocating funding the school division to cover architectural and engineering costs related to the school’s initial development, saying, “I think the board is inclined to do that as soon as they explain to us what they need in terms of preliminary [engineering].”

“We have to make sure we can justify the funding for them to go forward with their planning. Nothing is decided or set in stone but we are working well together and we are moving forward,” the chairman closed.

Copyright 2019 by Womack Publishing
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